Let’s move this science-policy-communication conversation forward

If you want to see me struggle to repress an eye-roll of great magnitude, just say, “Well, what is the role of scientists?”, or: “Scientists need to be better communicators.”  For added impact, raise your eyebrows and nod/shake your head to signal your consternation and, perhaps, your satisfaction with your awareness of significant, complicated issues of our field and time.

here we go again…

These are, of course, important topics for discussion. My exasperation is fueled by the way in which those topics have been discussed – OVER and OVER and OVER again – without much change, at least since I began graduate school almost 7 years ago.  Like many other issues (“we need to consider the human dimension!”, “we must work with communities!”, “we need more data!”), there is a lot of (trite) talk, and not an appropriately commensurate amount of action.

In the end, these discussions just look like exercises in conversation, more about the display of familiarity with the issues than about forging any real change.  (This is not to overlook or belittle those who actually are working to bring about meaningful change – this is to bemoan the fact that there aren’t more joining them).  In my (admittedly, sometimes overly curmudgeony) mind, these topics are something that young graduate students, overeager to impress, will bring up with great flourish to prompt what seem to be taken as deep, provocative discussions.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard much that is truly “deep” or “provocative”.

ok, i guess that’s enough for now. (from washingtonpost.com)

I don’t like sounding this grumpy, so I’ll stop criticizing, and start putting forth some of my own ideas.  I do not profess to be particularly knowledgeable about these things, and I am admittedly biased toward heavily applied conservation research.  I won’t claim that these ideas are particularly brilliant or air-tight, or even new – they’re just “new” to me, in that I haven’t come across too many people talking about them.  Then again, I’ve (irresponsibly) not done any background research for this post.

Some general thoughts that apply both topics (the “role” and “communication” issues):  “Science” is not a monolithic community, and not all scientists are the same.  Even within conservation biology, there is a great diversity of interests, backgrounds, goals, and skills.  Some scientists will gravitate more toward an active role in policy and communication, while others will remain more independent of those sectors.  We need good scientists at both ends of that spectrum, and every level in between.

the care bears had it down. (from kingdomofcaring.net)

A valuable exercise would be to map out those various positions along the spectrum, and to brainstorm standards of operation for each position.  Along with those standards, we need to candidly include the pros and cons of being in a given position, including potential impacts on one’s reputation as a “real” scientist, or potential impacts of appearing to not fulfill one’s moral duty by failing to actively contribute to a socially important cause.  These standards should include a mandate to maintain communication with scientists in other roles, so that the “pure” scientists making exciting breakthroughs in their specialization can provide the more “hybrid” scientists with the latest and most accurate information.

The entire conservation biology community is never going to unanimously agree on the “proper role” of science in policy or communication, let alone the entire scientific community.  But developing a set of standards and caveats for a set of potential roles could (one hopes) inform scientists on how to best fill the role that they gravitate toward.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of groups have already done this.  I just haven’t seen it done, or even really proposed, in discussions that I’ve witnessed.

So, given my lack of expertise, please take these statements and questions below as fodder for discussion, rather than statements that I believe to be absolutely right:

  • For those of us professing to have an interest in applying science to saving the world: perhaps it would be a good idea to critically ask: “If I conduct this research, what can one actually do with the resulting information?” (based on advice given to me by the great environmental economics minds of Dale Squires and Ted Groves).
  • Some scientists are blessed with great communication skills, but many are not, or simply don’t have the time to devote to outreach.  This probably isn’t going to change significantly, though we can certainly make more scientists conversant in basic communication skills.  My question: is all of this hand-wringing over our seeming incompetence really necessary or productive?  I mean, doctors didn’t design the various brilliant anti-smoking or breast cancer awareness campaigns, the police didn’t spearhead impactful anti-drunk driving campaigns, etc. etc.  At the 20th Biennial Conference on Marine Mammal Biology, Mark Orams gave an excellent presentation about employing marketing in communicating science, but I don’t know how feasible it is to ask most scientists to become marketers – though I’m confident some would be able to do so quite capably.  Would a more productive directive be: “Science needs to better engage with sectors that actually know how to communicate”?
  • Referring to the above point, I’ll revisit my point that “science” comprises diverse types of scientists on the gradient from “pure”/”ivory tower” to those more engaged in policy and communication.  We absolutely need this diversity – and those closer to the “engaged” part of the spectrum can be vital links between science and communication and policy.  We need intermediaries – I think if all scientists divided their attention between research and outreach, science as a whole would suffer, and it is perhaps unrealistic to expect that the media (especially non-science-writing specialists) will become widely versed in the ways of science.
  • The same goes for relating to policy.  E.g., my own research is very much a “jack of all trades” situation – I will never profess to being a brilliant ecologist or social scientist, and will continue to rely on excellent, specialized research conducted by colleagues to inform my own work.  At the same time, though, most of those brilliant ecologists would probably not be able to inform management decisions with the holistic perspectives that I gain from my interdisciplinary, management-focused research approaches.  The brilliant, solutions-oriented work coming out from interdisciplinary conservation/management scientists, merging vibrant ideas from different fields and sectors, is based on a strong foundation of focused research within disciplines.  But that research might not reach “the real world” without the work of cross-disciplinary, cross-sector researchers.
  • Candor about who we claim to be and what we claim to know:  Regardless of the role one chooses as a scientist-communicator-policy advocate, engendering and maintaining trust is vital.  We should never overstate our case, selectively hide information that doesn’t agree with our positions on issues, nor rely on marketing and emotion to obscure a shaky scientific foundation.  There needs to be common respect for the sanctity of science as a source of (ideally) unbiased, reliable information.  This, of course, is (I suspect) the core issue of these soul-searching, earnest, generally-not-interesting (but could be very much more interesting) discussions – it’s not a standard that is easily enforced.  So, perhaps, instead of asking, “What is the role, etc. etc.”, we can move forward with: “How should scientists in a given role behave?  On what should they base their decisions, recommendations, actions, and general communications with the public, decision-makers, and important liaisons such as media specialists?”
e.g., our friend george. (from: shirtoid.tumblr.com)

Advocacy, publicity, and solid science don’t need to be incompatible.  There is room (and need) for people to fill all sorts of hybrid positions among those three sectors, and there is a strong tendency for people to do so – so I’d love to see these discussions be more forward-thinking and productive as to how we can best employ our diversity of situations and foci.  Again, I don’t claim any expertise on these issues – I have colleagues and colleague-friends who have spent a lot of time working on these topics, and no disrespect is meant by me not taking the time to, you know, look it up.  Would be great to have whatever advances are being made shared to inform grad student training and to make sure our discussions are relevant to what is actually happening on the science-policy-communications fronts.

I just wanted to share some of the workings of my inner, uninformed mind, and would love to be better informed (esp. if anything I said is just plain stupid).