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Science communication more urgently needed than ever

06.06.2011, Age: 3793 days

Communicating to the general public the results and insights gained by scientific research, it has been argued time and again, can literally save lives. Whether alerting and informing communities about tornadoes, tropical cyclones, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, or nuclear accidents, advising policy makers on topics like famine, droughts, water pollution, floods, climate change, or sea level rise, all these issues (and many more) require rapid and accurate communication of scientific data to the threatened populations.

A recent blog by Andy Revkin (NYT's Dot Earth 31 May 2011) urges scientists to a more proactive and less defensive approach to science communication than merely write your report (maybe send out a press release), wait for journalists to phone you for an interview, and then to go on with your life when no one shows up. This is how many reports that could have made a difference disappear in a drawer, never to be read again. See Randy Olson's book Don't be Such a Scientist.

There is a great need for scientists who can communicate their science to the public in an appealing way. The latest issue of WMO Bulletin illustrates how this can be done. The World Meteorological Organisation has started a Taskforce for the Global Framework on Climate Services, headed by Jan Egeland, former United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. The Taskforce aims to make climate services available rapidly to the most vulnerable populations. In an article in the WMO Bulletin, Dot Earth columnist Andy Revkin "asks for agility and responsiveness to new online media, as we tap opportunities presented by the rise in use of mobile phones and social media".

In his Dot Earth blog, Revkin argues in favour of more intensive communication efforts than the ones proposed by WMO ("education and media, [...] reports for specific sectors, conferences bringing together various communities in new ways, targeted communication of specific warnings and more"). These include a more effective use of the internet, blogs, podcasts and video webcasts, use of novel graphic and animation techniques, in other words, be responsible for your own communication. In his own words:

"A common theme in these models is a willingness to experiment and to engage with all publics, including those who might seem hostile at first glance. Harnessing the power of the globe-spanning "crowd" is another. The alternative is to hunker down, as if waiting for a storm to pass. But the explosive changes afoot in how people share information and shape ideas are no stray storm.
Interpreting them that way would be like mixing up weather and climate."

What goes for the climate change community goes for most other scientific communities. There is no excuse for keeping scientific results to ourselves. A great number of good books on science communication has seen the light lately, to name just two: Nancy Baron's Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter and Randy Olson's Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. There are also numerous opportunities for science communication workshops and trainings. But finally, it comes down to the willingness of individual scientists to take their reponsibility and use their creativity in engaging with the public.

See also:

WMO Bulletin. Volume 60(1) - 2011. download pdf>>

Olive Heffernan. Nations commit to share climate information. Nature News. Published online 4 September 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.886 Link>>

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