A 2017 public opinion survey found that only about one in five American adults has a great deal of confidence in scientists. Some of the most pressing environmental challenges, including climate change, have not motivated sufficient action despite the accumulation of scientific evidence. These days, the Trump Administration routinely attacks, misrepresents, and ignores science to the detriment of the environment and our health. How can scientists improve their engagement with the public and decisionmakers to help solve these problems?
Last month, a cohort of scientists, scientists-in-training, and environmental advocates came together in Seattle, Washington to discuss these challenges in person. The workshop, led by COMPASS and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), convened participants working to address environmental and public health problems from multiple angles and diverse skill sets, including public health, ecology, biochemistry, computer science, water policy advocacy, and community-based participatory research. COMPASS and UCS supported cohorts of Science Sentinels and Science and Democracy Fellows (including both of us) in order to help to build a network of empowered, mutually supportive leaders that can help advance the role of science in society, guide their peers, and support evidence-based decision making on environmental issues at the local level and beyond.
Based on some of our workshop discussions and a roundup of resources from the UCS Advocacy Toolkit, the American Geophysical Union’s Sharing Science project, and the Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, we’ve compiled six ways for scientists to improve their engagement with some of society’s most pressing and vexing environmental challenges:
1. Focus on connection, not explanation
Scientists may have advanced degrees and specialized training, but that is just one kind of expertise needed to inform our most pressing environmental and public health problems. Community members, including those on the front lines of the environmental justice movements, are often experts in the challenges that their own neighborhoods face. Instead of trying to explain or convince others that your ideas are valid, focus on connecting with people in a way that identifies common ground and builds mutual trust. Take an opportunity to listen to others before offering your perspective, and offer your ideas with humility and a collaborative spirit. Check out the UCS Guide on Engaging Communities for more information on this topic.
2. Know your (specific) audience
One key for engagement is to define the audience for scientific outreach more specifically than just the “general public.” “The public” can be a difficult audience to craft a message for, because it is so large and so diverse. Try to identify a specific target person or group, if possible (e.g., a key legislator, community organizer, or local journalist). The COMPASS Message Box, which focuses on the distillation of a scientific problem or study into a handful of key ideas and results, can be a helpful tool for shaping messages that will resonate with a specific segment of the public. Listen carefully to your various audiences and craft messages that are succinct and responsive to their questions and interests.
3. Make your science relevant
Scientific results are often confined to academic meetings and subscription-access peer-reviewed journals, even though the research itself may have been taxpayer funded. Consider broadening the reach of your work and ideas by communicating through other channels, like social media sites (including Twitter), blog posts, YouTube videos, and audio podcasts. These mediums offer opportunities to shed light on different aspects of your work and allow for a creative outlet within which to share your talents. In these settings, you have more flexibility to contextualize your results, and doing so may even provide you with new insights to bring back to the lab bench or field site.
4. Don’t get lost in the details
Scientists are well-versed in the details of their work. While this comfort with the technicalities helps ensure research results are solid, scientists can get lost in nuanced discussions about statistics and lose sight of the bigger picture. When communicating science to the public, focus on the “so what?”, emphasizing how your research connects with your audience’s values and concerns. Using the figure below as a guide, focus on the public audience approach (on right side) that emphasizes key results above all else. And remember, most people can only remember three to five ideas at one time, so stick to your key take-home points and make them extra “sticky” by giving your quantitative results meaningful context relevant to your specific audience.
5. Offer your perspective to journalists
This may come as a surprise, but most journalists are eager to hear from scientists, especially at your local paper. Proactively engage with journalists, introducing yourself by offering thoughts on a recent article or inviting a journalist to your lab or field site. Ashley Ahearn, guest panelist at our workshop and award-winning public media journalist (see her stories at PRI), encourages scientists to “meet journalists halfway”; as you actively develop a trusted relationship with a local journalist, you could become a valuable and accessible resource of technical expertise. In return, members of the press, who are practiced storytellers with a knack for accessible communication methods, can help to get a scientific message across to a wide audience. These communicators are trained to focus on eliciting the main points out of trusted technical experts, such as the novelty and implications of new research.
6. Identify policy windows for effective public engagement
As the federal government under President Trump takes on an increasingly anti-science tone, you can stand up for science by weighing in as a technical expert and constituent of your elected leaders. Keep an eye on public comment periods on Regulations.gov, and write comments that speak to the technical aspects of proposed rules. One opportunity to do this right now is the open comment period for EPA’s recent proposal to censor science, which would undermine decades of science-based policymaking that serves as the foundation for our nation’s clean air and water standards that protect our health. For more information on this proposal and how you can offer your comments, check out this blog post and how-to guide for developing public comments.
This list is just a start; we welcome your ideas for engagement on Twitter using the hashtag #SciComm. For more information on sharing your science and tips for effective public engagement, check out these resources from the Sharing Science project and Science Network (including archived webinars). For now, we’ll leave you with this helpful visual from the American Geophysical Union, which walks through some of the many options for scientific engagement.
Vijay Limaye is an environmental health scientist working as a Climate Change and Health Science Fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City. He is broadly interested in quantifying, communicating, and mitigating the health risks associated with climate change, with a focus on the public health burden of global air pollution and extreme heat events. Prior to his role at NRDC, Vijay worked for three years as a scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional offices in San Francisco and Chicago, focusing on issues such as Clean Air Act regulatory implementation, risk communication, citizen science, and air-quality monitoring policy. Vijay holds a B.A. from the University of California-Berkeley and a Ph.D. in environmental epidemiology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For his dissertation, Vijay has conducted interdisciplinary research quantifying the health impacts of climate change–triggered air pollution and heat waves for populations in the United States and India.
Adrienne Keller is a PhD student in the Evolution, Ecology and Behavior program in the Department of Biology at Indiana University, where she studies forest carbon and nutrient cycling. Adrienne holds an M.S. in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana and a B.A. in Biology and Geography from Macalester College (St. Paul, MN). In addition to her research in ecosystem ecology, Adrienne is an active member of the newly formed, grassroots organization Concerned Scientists @ IU. Prior to graduate school, Adrienne was involved in science policy work as a Program Assistant with the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington, D.C. Adrienne has also enjoyed working with K-12 students in a variety of settings, including leading cross-cultural immersion programs for high school students to Africa and Latin American with the Student Diplomacy Corps and teaching field ecology courses in the Galapagos Islands with Ecology Project International.
Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.