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AGU’s Sharing Science is helping scientists talk to the rest of us

Posted on 8 January 2016 by John Abraham

In our society today, science serves numerous vital roles, and scientists are making our lives better. From natural hazards to natural resources, and from climate change to planetary science, Earth and space scientists serve especially crucial roles. Providing them with the tools they need to effectively communicate the facts of their research so that policymakers, business leaders, and the public can make informed decisions is crucial. 

Despite the important role science plays, we scientists are often stereotyped as uninterested or incapable of translating our work into something the public can understand. To the contrary, many of us who would otherwise be interested in communicating our science to broad audiences often find ourselves lacking the necessary training. 

The absence of formal training opportunities is perplexing problem, as scientists have much to offer society as a whole. Where departments and institutions fall short in providing training, for Earth and space scientists at least, the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Sharing Science Program fills that gap.

AGU is a society with nearly 60,000 members worldwide, devoted to promoting discovery in Earth and space science for the benefit of society. It hosts the world’s largest Earth science meeting, held each December in the USA. In addition to its core mission, AGU is dedicated to the promotion of science to a larger audience. To fill that role, AGU created the Sharing Science program. 

The Sharing Science network is composed of scientists from around the world who are passionate about sharing their science with broad audiences. Members range from undergraduates who are looking for advice on how fit science communication into their career path, to researchers who want to express the value of their work to lawmakers and legislators, to tenured professors who never received formal training in science communication but are now realizing the value of translating their work into plain English.

The program encompasses all of the resources and opportunities needed to help scientists effectively communicate with broader audiences — including journalists, educators and students, policymakers, and the public — about Earth and space science and its importance. It includes interactive workshops, webinars, toolkits and more to help scientists understand their audience’s needs and to improve their communications skills. 

AGU also creates and facilitates opportunities for scientists to share their knowledge with a variety of audiences through social media, op-eds, connections with local community groups or legislators, public talks, and media interviews. And scientists are offered the opportunity to network with other science communicators, volunteer to serve as experts and resources to reporters, and have their voices heard through our blogging and social media platforms.

I asked Dr. Shane M. Hanlon with the Sharing Science Program at AGU how they help scientists become better communicators. He told me, 

AGU wants to help scientists convey the value of their work to diverse audiences by empowering them to be visible, authoritative, and accessible voices in their community and the world.

Sharing Science seeks to break down barriers, whether it’s a barrier of not knowing how to find opportunities to engage their audiences, or a barrier imposed by the formalness of scientific training. One small example of such a barrier is the use of jargon. Because it acts as a barrier when communicating science, the program aims to teach scientists how to avoid jargon when speaking with diverse audiences. Non-scientist audience members shut down at the first mention of “geomorphology” or “hydrostatic equilibrium,” but when scientists talk about the origins of landscapes and fluids at rest, the picture is clearer. While jargon is a necessary part of science, reducing its usage is a core part of being a successful science communicator.

It’s important for scientists to be clear, but also concise. Explaining research in plain English is one thing; not boring the audience to death in the process is another. That’s why AGU provides scientists with the tools to explain years of work in 30 seconds or less. If a scientist can sum up their work in 30 seconds, then giving a 5-minute radio interview, 10-minute talk at a conference, or 1-hour presentation to community group becomes less intimidating.

These are just a few examples of how the program works to eliminate those barriers to successful communication. Scientists don’t have to “dumb down” their research or lesson the intellectual merit or seriousness of their work, they just have to speak in ways that engage their audience’s attention and values.

So, what’s next for this endeavor? Illustrating the importance of science communication is getting easier but there is still a lot of work to do. “It feels like things are different now – that we’re past the point of having to convince people that there’s a need for better science communication, so now we can just get right to helping scientists hone their skills,” said Aaron Huertas, multi-year leader of a “Communicating Climate Science” workshop at the AGU annual meeting and Senior Washington Director with Cater Communications, a bipartisan strategic communications firm. 

The Sharing Science program is only in its third year, but AGU has seen an increase, not only in membership, but also in interest about the program and science communication as a whole. Every year at its annual meeting, AGU runs numerous workshops on science communication, and Sharing Science staff members travel all over the country to train eager scientists in communication techniques. AGU is also partnering with other organizations and societies to provide scientists with communication tools.

What scientists are also learning is that the value of communicating is now becoming acknowledged by their peers. And it isn’t just AGU that’s involved. Other organizations like the Union of Concerned ScientistsThe American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Meteorological Society either acknowledge excellence in communication or support communication efforts of their members. 

There are also groups whose sole focus is on climate communication (Climate Communication and Climate Nexus are perhaps the best). Five years ago, my colleagues and I even set up a website whose goal is to connect reporters and elected officials with scientists to talk about current climate events (the Climate Science Rapid Response Team).

Perhaps the most prestigious communication honor is the annual Climate Communication Prize. The past five winners are really the who’s-who among our community. I asked the most recent winner, Dr. Richard Somerville, about the importance of communication, particularly for young scientists. He told me,

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Comments 1 to 4:

  1. Geophysical Union?  Whenever I meet a scientifically educated person that is in GW denial, he (always a he) turn out to be a geologist. This leaves me wondering what is going on with geologists.  Any comment?

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  2. I'm not sure what you mean by GW denial. Most geologists I know would agree that either (1) the earth is warming, or (2) the earth is cooling, as it always has.  Many do accept Option (1).

    However, geologists are also familiar with earth's history. They have studied the evidence of past changes in earth's climate, and observed that often major climate change occurs quite rapidly.  And drastic (by human standards) climate change is the norm, it is natural.  Climate equilibrium has never existed.

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  3. PaulG, for the purpose of ecosystem consideration, anything in the order of 5 million years without a major departure from a mean would be enough for me to consider equilibrium. There are longer periods in the record without major departures. I think you should substantiate your statement by first looking up what constitutes equilibrium when the term is used by climate science and then examining geological ages for periods that would be considered equilibrium. Did you do that? References?

    If there isn't any, then I guess you may be right, although, from the human civilization point of view, the horizon of 2 to 5 thousand years is more relevant. Then again it's not because climate has changed naturally that it is not now changing because of human activity. To visualize the effect of what we're doing now, one should imagine the current volcanic activity on Earth, then multiply it by 100. Sure, it could happen naturally. If it did, would we be concerned?

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  4. PaulG,

    I am pretty sure BobH was referring to the current undeniable episode of rapid global warming (far more rapid that non-human induced processes would be) that is undeniably connected to the current rapid increase of atmospheric CO2 to levels well above the highest level that occured during the past 800,000 years (and the increase of CO2 can only be explained as being due to humans dredging up and burning fossil fuels).

    What you described does not excuse a denial that recent human impacts are siginicant and a serious concern. And I agree with BobH that there is a strong tendancy for the Geophysicists among the scientifically trained to have that denial.

    As a member of APEGA (Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta) I am aware that most of the Geoscientists working in Alberta (and there are many) have decided to try to personally benefit from the burning of fossil fuels. And many of them have specialized to the point of having no viable employment in any other endeaviour. That would explain the motivation of many of them to deny the developing undeniable better understanding.

    And many of them have written letters that get published in the APEGA publication that highlight their deliberate desire not to properly understand this issue. However, to be fair, many Engineers in Alberta are similarly biased regarding the issue of climate science.

    Things have been so distorted by pursuit of profit, tax revenue and employment any way hat can be gotten away with in Alberta (the result of global competition in a free-for-all market) that at one point the elected President of APEGA actually personally declared (on behalf of all members) that an APEGA member's responsibility was to maximize the profit that could be earned and to defend the developed pursuits of profit, rather than the 'protection of the public interest from unacceptable pursuits of profit so that a sustainable better future is developed' which is the truer 'public interest' that APEGA members have the responsibility to protect.

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