Weighing the costs: communicating personally and professionally as a climate scientist

Sarah E. Myhre Ph.D. and Tessa M. Hill Ph.D.

SE Myhre is a Postdoctoral Scholar with the Future of Ice Initiative at the University of Washington. TM Hill is an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science and the Bodega Marine Laboratory at the University of California at Davis. Both are climate and ocean scientists with expertise in climate communication.

Sarah Myhre sampling sediment cores aboard the R/V Melville
Tessa Hill and BML Director Gary Cherr discussing science at a recent open house

Below is an edited conversation between SEM and TMH.

SEM: Tessa, we’ve been colleagues for a long time and have often had conversations about climate communication at conferences and over lunch. I definitely struggle with navigating climate communication and I think it’s worth our time to write some of this down.

TMH: I agree! So much to talk about — including how to best use our voices to make sure that important science reaches the world.

SEM: The power of the scientific community lies in our role as objective, honest brokers of information, sans personal biases or agendas. But, what about the moral imperative of communicating real risks to society, infrastructure, and human life? Can scientists successfully talk about the risks they foresee for their own families without painting themselves into a biased corner? Scientists are real people that share the same concerns regarding job security and integrity that are hallmarks of many other professions. So, how do we as a community accommodate the need for professional objectivity and the need for our work to serve the public? We have to be prepared to talk about the “so what” question — the world around us is clamoring for human perspective on climate science.

TMH: Scientists have different levels of comfort with being in the public eye, and different viewpoints on how to balance expressing their personal feelings and experiences with their data. There are extensive resources on principles of climate science communication (for example, here and here) — a wealth of resources to get scientists started. What is missing in many of these discussions and documents is how engaging in science communication will impact the scientists themselves. How will scientists walk the line between relaying scientific information and expressing personal views? How will researchers weigh the impact on their career — both positive & negative — that arise from speaking publicly about their work? How can universities and research institutes provide support to scientists who chose to spend time engaging and communicating?

SEM: We have almost no conversation within our community about how science communication and media exposure might impact individual scientists. I think this is where much of the moral quandaries exist. What is the responsibility of individual scientists to both serve the public (and the imperative of communicating real risks) and to retain professional objectivity (by keeping it strictly to the science)? To make matters more complicated, the field of communication strategy is rife with the importance of narrative, story, values, and personal connection. People want to listen to stories about other people — often this is the primary way we as people learn new ideas. So, it is no wonder that the bulk of my communication trainings have focused on developing personal rapport, demonstrative metaphors, and simple messages.

“People want to listen to stories about other people — often this is the primary way we as people learn new ideas. So, it is no wonder that the bulk of my communication trainings have focused on developing personal rapport, demonstrative metaphors, and simple messages.” SEM

TMH: We need many voices to solve this big problem. However, there are two issues that come to mind. The first is the idea of the non-biased, ‘honest broker’ scientist — this concept reflects the traditional model of a research scientist — the distant, authoritative, expert. However, being cautious and thorough does not preclude scientists from also having personal opinions about the outcomes of scientific inquiry (there is after all a long history of well respected scientists speaking their minds). Also, many environmental scientists feel bound by a more significant social contract, one that responds to societal needs and emphasizes communication of critical information. This is the great privilege and responsibility we carry as climate scientists: it is possible to be rigorous, analytical, and critical in our investigations of the natural world while still acknowledging a personal response to the serious nature of what we are documenting.

SEM: So, that is a really uncomfortable space that each individual scientist has to reckon with. For me, now with some of these communication experiences in the rearview window, I can see much more clearly the landscape of opinions in the scientific community around this issue. We do not all agree. There is absolutely a spectrum of opinions regarding what is appropriate to say and you could call it a normative spectrum (i.e. a spectrum of ideas about what “ought” to be done). This is especially true in the polarized, politicized field of climate change communication.

“This is the great privilege and responsibility we carry as climate scientists: it is possible to be rigorous, analytical, and critical in our investigations of the natural world while still acknowledging a personal response to the serious nature of what we are documenting.”TMH

TMH: Another issue for me is that the idea of scientists having personal attachment to their work, or personal feelings at stake, is covered in the media in a gendered way. Women scientists are far more likely to be asked about their children, their significant others, how they balance these forces with their work, and if they are invested in their research (climate change, for example) because of their personal attachment to the future of their family. So, if there are risks to acknowledging a personal connection to the outcome of their science, the gamble is greater for women scientists because they are more likely to be portrayed in this light. Wouldn’t it be nice if women could be portrayed as experts in climate science, without invoking the need to save the world for their children? Wouldn’t it be equally powerful if more of our male colleagues were featured in articles about the importance of studying climate science, in part because of their attachment to the future of their families?

SEM: Totally. There is definitely a bias. The way women and men scientists are portrayed is very different. I think there are risks to acknowledging a personal connection to the outcome of our published science. Navigating those risks by reflecting a scientific/ethical framework in your speech is not necessarily a straightforward task. And yet — the stakes are super high: for every poorly prepared scientist or uncalculated, inflammatory statement on climate change, there is an opportunity cost — meaning that we as a scientific community actively erode our own credibility in the public’s eye due to poor communication practices. I think we get very little to no support inside of academia to do this better.

TMH: Great point. I was recently asked how my institution supported my goals of engagement with the public (including science communication). What came to mind is that I can identify several individuals — colleagues and staff — who have really supported me in this mission… but does the culture and structure of my institution support it? I think we can do better. The pillars of academic institutions are research, teaching and service (the balance of those dependent upon where you work) — how does public engagement fit in? If scientists are primarily evaluated via productivity in scientific manuscripts or the courses they teach, how does spending time preparing for a media interview fit in this value system? Can public engagement be recognized as a blend of ‘teaching’ and ‘service’ in the mission of a university?

SEM: I hope so! Our institutions are responsible for evolving along with us. We need a self-reflective culture in academia, to shine a light back on ourselves. Ultimately, the risks and rewards of climate communication are not going away. Acknowledging the emergent scientific role of climate communication is an important step towards reconciling scientific leadership with the perils of a changing planet.

SEM & TMH: What can we do to support graduate students, postdocs, and faculty who are deeply invested in public engagement, to buffer them from some of the costs identified above? Let’s make some suggestions!

Universities & Research Institutes

  • provide science communication training to your scientific staff and students
  • build public engagement into the reward system for promotions and institutional accolades
  • be aware that engagement takes time (away from other tasks) and involves risks

Media

  • consider the portrayal of women and men in science: be certain that you aren’t asking for the ‘personal side’ of the story from only female subjects (again, see The Finkbeiner Test for guidance)
  • accommodate the spectrum of comfort that scientists have in connecting their research to personal impacts and outcomes; be savvy in understanding the risks around job security and peer-to-peer criticism that scientists face

Scientists

  • assume that nothing is ‘off the record’ — consider ahead of time how you want to handle questions about the personal motivations or impact of your science
  • know yourself: be honest with how much public exposure you can handle and your comfort level making personal statements beyond the scientific implications of your work
  • be brave: there has never been a more important time to be a well-spoken member of the scientific community