Let’s Talk Science

Last month I was invited to visit a middle school class and talk to them about my experience as a professional scientist. Initially I thought I would be standing in front of a classroom talking to maybe 30 kids, but after I checked in at the office, they walked me to the auditorium: on the stage, full lights, with several classrooms of students assembled together. While I was caught slightly off guard, I still think it was a great time. I got to ramble on about my days in college, previous jobs I had, and the work I do now. I talked about the projects we do and why, and the students asked some really excellent, thoughtful questions.


Earlier this Spring, I also got to attend a science conference in Urbana-Champaign and talk with all kinds of water resource professionals. I presented on GIS tools for data collection, and also listened to a very interesting presentation on phosphorus pollution via streambank erosion. These presentations sound very dense I know, but they were fascinating to me. There was also a fun presentation about Canada Goose management, and the person presenting brought a trained ecology work dog! (I’m really hoping I can convince my boss that we need a dog too. For science of course.)


Communication in science takes a lot of different forms, and is arguably the hardest part of any scientific job or study. The role of communication in science is of the utmost importance, but is also often overlooked. Like with any job, reading, writing, and public speaking are highly sought-after skills, and science often doesn’t do a good job in cultivating them. To be specific, we scientists often don’t do well at communicating outside our small work environments. So why is the science community, made up of people who are supposed to be smart, so bad at communicating?


There are a number of reasons for it, and it varies between individuals, but for me the hardest part is shifting my perspective when trying to express my thoughts. I spent four years at school learning a specific way to process information, as well as a lot of technical terminology and it’s hard to translate that back into a public-friendly way of speaking. Using jargon is an excellent way to communicate complex ideas quickly, but anyone not explicitly familiar with words specific to my field of study gets left behind needlessly. In scientific literature, every paper flows the same way: Introduction, Methods, Results, Analysis: Conclusion. Most people lose focus by the end of the intro, and the part people really care about (what your research means and how it affects them) doesn’t get discussed until the analysis or even the conclusion.


Another major pitfall is that when you chop out the nitty gritty and get straight to the point, you end up with harsh words and lots of questions. A great narrative example of this is the story of The Lorax. There is a great essay titled “Why the Lorax Lost” by Laura and Guy Waterman that puts the fault of the ecological devastation in Dr. Suess’s book on the Lorax himself. His role in protecting the forest was speaking for the trees, but all his words were aggressive and confrontational. He used hardliner ideologies, and was unwilling to understand other perspectives or compromise and, ultimately, it cost both groups everything. To be fair, he had good intentions and was 100% correct in everything he said, but he said it so poorly that everyone ended up suffering.


We see essentially similar themes with climate change in our lifetime. The newest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that came out clocks in at just under 4,000 pages. And that’s part one of a three-part report. So, you really can’t blame the general public or anyone for not reading that thing cover to cover. However, when the message gets boiled down to the most important basics, you get messages like “everyone needs to cease fossil fuel use today, regardless of economic impact,” and “the goal is now ecological triage, not prevention,” and “we are trying to just survive, not thrive.” These are pretty unpalatable messages that most people are apt to ignore rather than be motivated by. Again though, like the Lorax, climate scientists are not wrong when they say trouble is coming.


This brings us back to our communication skills. If our overarching goal is to get people to make better decisions based on sound knowledge, we need to engage people properly. Getting kids excited about science and learning, sharing knowledge among your peers, having small conversations between people in open ways, maybe attempting to write a blog ?, this is how we help people understand. The Conservation Foundation has been making serious changes in the last few years in this regard as well. We are trying to strengthen and expand connections to the community, to find out what people need and want, and to tailor our activities and work to specific communities of people. The conservation work we do is important, but it is more impactful when it also meets specific needs of the people. By matching our work to the public’s interests, we can help teach and motivate people about what they can do as well, furthering our impact. In the end, people will only work for what they care about, and they only care about things they understand well. If I can help you understand anything about Environmental Science and the work of The Conservation Foundation better, I’d love to hear from you at [email protected].


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