Op-Eds for Cheeseheads: Training New Scientists as Communicators in Wisconsin Food Systems Policy

September 4, 2018 | 2:03 pm
T. Campbell
Greta Landis
PhD student, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Facts aren’t impartial. They have great implications for people. They threaten people.” A few dozen graduate students and handful of public employees and farmers in the room nod thoughtfully over Margaret’s comment, laughing as she says, “It has never been a rational world!” On a June afternoon at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this group is looking to a panel of experts on science communication and advocacy with big questions: how should new scientists start public communication, and where do they have leverage in food systems policy?

Communication and advocacy in Midwestern agriculture

Wisconsin is a unique place to work in agriculture and food systems, which is what drew many people in the room to work here. The state is home to a huge breadth of agricultural activities across its 68,500 farms, with many examples of progressive, farmer-led research and stewardship and initiatives with cutting edge technology. However, even with agricultural sciences and industry woven into state culture, Wisconsin faces the same communication challenges we see in the news across the nation: tension between a vision of agriculture as a business, a science, and as a public service, conflicts between conservation and production, and differences in urban-rural priorities that leave plenty of new researchers wondering how to connect with the public and legislators over agricultural issues.

We organized a science communication and advocacy workshop with help from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Science for Public Good Fund after hearing graduate students in plant sciences wanted to improve their writing, speaking, and tweeting to connect with public policy on food systems. In addition to developing our abilities to frame our research to different audiences and issues, we wanted to learn more about how to advocate and contribute to new policy. Here’s a little of what we learned.

Use language thoughtfully

Workshop participants practice writing a “hook” for the beginning of an op-ed. (Photo credit: T. Campbell)

Eric Hamilton and Kelly Tyrrell brought their experience as science writers at UW-Communications on writing to connect with different audiences. They emphasized the importance of clear, straightforward language, and told the group to always avoid jargon or define it, thinking about buzzwords that carry baggage or might alienate your audience.

Keep it relevant

To make an op-ed or blog post about your work timely, Eric and Kelly suggested using current events related to frame your research or expertise, whether in recent news or through the anniversaries of historical events. Google alerts and organizational newsletters are tools to help researchers stay tuned in to new research or activities on a given topic. Connecting with a new audience on their values and experience is more effective than rebutting their ideas point by point, and finding a topic of connection can frame your story or ideas. Finally, they encouraged us to get out there and use our resources: “the more you write, the more you’ll figure out how to write and what to write about.”

Eric Hamilton discusses story structure in science writing and news (Photo credit: T. Campbell)

Be aware of perceptions around the issues

To use our new communication tools for advocacy, our policy experts encouraged us to do our research about who is in power on a particular issue, considering organizational affiliations, investments, and how potential opposition views the issue. Margaret Krome from the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute emphasized that the messenger matters. She explained that scientists might not always be the right messenger to take an issue to a legislator, but can supply expertise and help draw the connections between research findings and a policy-maker’s constituents. George Reistad, the food policy coordinator at the city of Madison, explained his strategies from his background in advocacy: “Be as non-polarizing as possible while still having a firm request or ask, and a clear end goal.”

Scott Laeser, a farmer at Plowshares and Prairie Farm and the water program director at Clean Wisconsin, told us, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. We need both the fiery op-ed and the strategic visits to lawmakers, but the same person can’t always do both.” Find others working on the issues from different angles so we can complement each other, and be cautious about sinking all your energy into one vote or one bill.

“Create a new ‘we’”

Finally, our panelists reminded us about the importance of engaging, whether that means responding to people who disagree with you or finding the point of intersection for a diverse range of people on a particular issue. People need to feel that they are being heard, and understanding the “why” behind an issue is as important as “who” you seek out to address it. Margaret advised seeking out people who do understand the process or issue at hand, and asking for their input: “you don’t need to be an expert on the policy process to start.”

Finally: “Policy work is fundamentally harder if policymakers won’t listen to you—getting politicians elected who will listen to you is a huge step” toward the policies you want to see.

Recommended resources for researchers and new communicators: COMPASS, CaSP, California Council for Science and Technology, TheOpEd Project, Pew Trust, National Academies, The Open Notebook, Medium, The Conversation, Massive Science