A Changing Climate of Communication

GRANBY, CO— “We’re going to kick these guys’ asses and we’re going to win this thing!” James Byrne shouted into the microphone, providing a rousing conclusion to the first evening of this unique 5-day conference. Byrne, a climate scientist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, was seeking to inspire the roughly hundred scientists, communication professionals, and students in the audience to chart a new path for climate researchers to get their message across.

Scientists in all fields are expected to perform public outreach occasionally on matters ranging from research funding to science literacy. But attendees at the June meeting, dubbed “Communicating Climate Science: A Historic Look to the Future,” generally agreed that climate scientists have a special responsibility to communicate—and convince the public and policymakers about—their work’s deep implications. Created by Byrne and colleagues who wanted to equip scientists with the tools to fulfill that stated duty, the meeting was the latest step by the geoscience establishment to tackle the challenge in a tangible way. Whether they shared Byrne’s fervor—aimed at those he called “deniers”—attendees’ willingness to convene at this dusty if picturesque ranch underscored their commitment to the cause.

“A lot of this stuff is really depressing. Instead of ‘many species will shift their geographic ranges,’ [it’s] ‘Santa’s new uniform will become a Speedo.’ ” —Laurel Whitney

“Communicating is becoming part of the job description,” Danny Harvey, a climate and energy modeler at the University of Toronto in Canada, tells Science Careers in an interview. “I’ve been doing my science and publishing my papers for years, but I get the sense that the message isn’t getting out,” atmospheric chemist Steven Lloyd, an attendee from NASA ‘s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, says in a separate interview. “I feel an obligation to make an attempt to get that message across. That so many scientists can’t readily explain the essence of climate change to the average person makes me feel a greater obligation.”

There has always been a professional tension in climate science about whether or not to speak out, and how. For decades before his death in 2010, climatologist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, shared insights on climate change with reporters, the general public, and civic groups—anyone who would listen and many who wouldn’t. But his peers were at times ambivalent. “Steve came under criticism by colleagues who said he should not go out and make statements that were exaggerated or could be interpreted to be exaggerated,” science historian Spencer Weart told the conference audience. Similarly, former NASA climatologist James Hansen has faced criticism from colleagues who feel he has opined on policy matters well outside his scientific expertise, like coal plants and carbon policy. 

A variety of other thorny issues pervaded the meeting. Attendees explored the difference, for example, between explaining their science and advocating specific policies. “Scientists should be sharing the facts, and as objectively as they’re able, explaining the options to society,” Lloyd tells Science Careers. But he defies critics who think climate scientists damage their reputations as honest brokers by advocating certain policies. “If you were doing research on a rare medical birth defect, and you discovered a new treatment, and you spoke out about it, nobody would blink. They would say ‘this is important and can help people.’ I think the analogy holds for climate science.”

Speakers at the conference stressed the importance of telling personal stories, emphasizing local impacts of climate change over global ones, and understanding that scientists command respect from the public on technical matters despite what some might think. Session topics ranged from demographic analyses of the American public to case studies on messaging with video, art, and comedy, with the goal of providing scientists with the tools of effective communication.

“A lot of this stuff is really depressing,” Laurel Whitney, a science writer with Pace University in New York City, told attendees during her talk. “Instead of ‘many species will shift their geographic ranges,’  [it’s] ‘Santa’s new uniform will become a Speedo.’ ” Physicist Lynda Williams, known as the “Physics Chanteuse,” belted out a medley of geoscience-themed pop song spoofs, drawing laughs for “Life Will Survive” with apologies to Gloria Gaynor. 

Byrne said that many of his colleagues who accept the mantle of public communicator overestimate their ability to speak clearly to broad audiences, and underestimate the skills required to do rhetorical battle in a heated media environment. “There’s a bit of a perception out there that ‘I can talk about this stuff to anybody,’ ” he says. “The problem is they’ve never been trained in it.”

It’s not just the general public that scientists want to reach. Glaciologist Richard Alley of the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, said in a session that, despite appearances, scientists are steadily convincing policymakers on Capitol Hill. While researchers devoted to public outreach on climate change might well feel gloomy given the climate policy paralysis in Washington, D.C., his personal interactions with lawmakers from both parties have given him some hope. “It may look dark right now. It may not be obvious that [our message] is getting through, but I think it is.”

Communication training

In recent years, professional societies in the geosciences have tried to fill the communications training gap. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) has devoted dozens of sessions at its annual meeting to aspects of science outreach, and in 2011 established a $25,000 annual prize for communication about climate change. “On communication, many people feel unsupported, so AGU wants to help them,” Olivia Ambrogio, an AGU staffer who helps run communication workshops, said during a Granby session. AGU’s decision to add the Colorado meeting to its slate of summer conferences was groundbreaking—its meetings are usually detailed explorations of specific technical subfields—but hardly surprising given the field’s current emphasis on outreach.

Confronting career realities

Discussions during the conference’s nightly beer-and-wine socials revealed that some students are struggling to balance the dual roles of research and communication. Sara Zhou Rosengard, a student in the joint Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute graduate program, tells Science Careers that she chose to study chemical oceanography “because I wanted to contribute to a field relevant to climate change.” But during her first year in grad school, she was “concerned that my research was somewhat removed from the bigger picture.” She and some fellow students started the Broader Impacts Group, a campus organization that provides workshops and training on public speaking, radio, blogging, and art. 

A number of graduate students told Science Careers that they sometimes feel they should downplay their outreach efforts when discussing their work on campus. “I am lucky in that my advisors are supportive of my efforts because they know it’s important to me,” Rosengard says. “But that’s not the case for every advisor-student relationship. One of the purposes of the Broader Impacts Group [is] provide opportunities for students to learn these skills outside of the graduate program we’re in.”

Juliette Rooney-Varga, a microbial ecologist with the University of Massachusetts (U Mass), Lowell, puts it more bluntly in an interview with Science Careers. “I don’t think most professors are preparing their students for this task of communicating to the general public,” she says.

That raises the concern that focusing on communication may distract younger scientists from the scientific research that—given current attitudes on faculties—is much more important for getting them hired, tenured, and promoted. Maxwell Boykoff, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, partners with a professor in the theatre and dance department to teach a class in which students create climate-themed videos, art projects, and installations. But he’s not sanguine about the professional rewards of such activities. “The tenure system is oriented towards counting publications, counting funding you’re bringing in, and at this point it’s hopeful at best that will change,” he says.

Crossing over

Still, others see more career value in speaking out. Science journalist Chris Mooney has trained some 3000 scientists on public speaking, blogging, and dealing with reporters as part of a team of trainers dubbed “Ninja Communications,” an effort that grew out of an NSF-funded project. The value of communication, he says, “isn’t formally recognized as much as I’d like.” But he thinks a “cultural change” is underway in the geosciences as younger scientists who care about outreach become more senior and the field embraces the mission of communication more broadly. “Plus, a lot of graduate students are headed to careers in industry or nonprofits where communication is vital, so from a workforce training perspective these skills are essential.”

But in Granby, attendees agreed that it’s easier for a working scientist to shift their focus toward public outreach once their careers are established. In 2005, when she received tenure at U Mass, Lowell, Rooney-Varga was publishing exclusively on scientific subjects. Today, she directs the campus climate change initiative and runs a NASA-funded education program that trains high school and college students in climate science and communication, using online video production. A series of other pending proposals covers what she calls “the intersection of communication, education, and decision support for policymakers,” using apps, games, video, and animation. “The opportunities for [financial] support are out there on this topic,” she says.

“It’s very gratifying to work with people who feel so passionately about this, often times more passionately than for their own research,” she says. Others who have made a similar transition report a similar sense of satisfaction. Michael Theusner left a career validating climate models to take a job as a scientist at a science center called the Klimahaus in Bremerhaven, Germany. “I like my research, I miss my science sometimes, but I’m a lot more happy,” he told Science Careers over lunch with colleagues in Granby. “At the institute I was at, nobody else wanted to deal with communicating with the public. I do, and I’m happy with my job.”

At the Granby conference, Michael Mann told attendees about personal and political struggles he has experienced related to his research on the “hockey stick” graph on global temperatures.

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