Academic institutions: Take a front seat in communicating climate science

Tessa M. Hill is a scientist at University of California Davis, and recently received a AAAS Leshner Leadership Fellowship in Public Engagement.

Growing global concern over the impact of climate change places climate scientists at the forefront of communicating risks, impacts, and adaptation strategies to non-scientists. This means that universities and other academic institutions play a critical role in advocating for science-based decision making, and supporting scientists who are integrating public engagement in their scholarship.

Many climate scientists express a feeling of urgency in relaying their discoveries to the public sphere. However, some scientists contemplating integrating public engagement with their scholarship face a variety of disincentives to engage: for example, concerns over communication skills, discomfort with how they are portrayed in the media, perceived loss of scientific integrity, and a feeling of “lack of time” for meaningful engagement. Thus, academic institutions can play a leadership role in providing support, incentives, and structures that encourage scientific engagement on this, and other, complex societal and scientific issues. This post discusses ways that institutions — universities, professional societies and others — can provide a backbone of support for scientists engaged in discovery and communication. While my motivation for this post might be climate change, these ideas can be applied to any scientific discipline.

Build a practice and community of engagement

Institutions that provide significant media/communications training to their scientists are taking a needed first step in encouraging faculty and graduate students to embrace a ‘practice practice practice’ approach. Many opportunities exist for training scientists in communication skills (e.g., COMPASS, Alda Center, AAAS) and scientists may enjoy greater confidence and competence that results from explicit communications training offered on their campuses or professional meetings.

A second aspect of providing support structures is via investment in staff public information officers and communication experts. Communications staff are a wealth of knowledge to many scientists who actively engage with the media. We should strive to provide regular interaction with staff experts who can, among other things, provide practice interviews, strategize on the use of social media, and use their skills and network to communicate discoveries. Press officers play a key role in distributing climate science outcomes to the greater public — they are partners in our quest to disseminate results.

Finally, more universities are explicitly building science communication and engagement skills into graduate curriculum. This move will create a new generation of scientists who develop experimental and analytical expertise alongside communication and engagement skills that will aid them in their future careers.

First give a push, then a pull…

The opportunities described above are ways that we encourage (push) scientists to engage — provide training, experts who can help them, and encouragement to communicate outside of the walls of academia. The next step is to ... pull … scientists along in the quest for meaningful interactions with decision makers, public(s), and media. Many actions are incentivized within academic institutions, financially or otherwise, to encourage scientists to behave in certain ways. Why not use our incentive structures to build meaningful opportunities for those involved in public engagement? For example, does your campus provide teaching releases or fellowships for faculty involved in intensive on-campus service? If so, then consider public engagement — policy briefings, meetings with decision makers, public talks, interactions with museums and other education avenues — as part of the definition of ‘service’ to university and society. Scientists shouldn’t feel they are taking on engagement in addition to their regular university responsibilities (teaching, research, service), but instead as valuable and valued component of their academic position.

“we are missing the voices and research results of an increasingly diverse pool of junior scientists”

Diversify the voices we hear

Scientists who are interested in public engagement tend to wait to do so until mid- or late- career, out of concern over (negative) impacts on their tenure and promotion cases. Junior scientists frequently hear the advice “wait until you have tenure” to speak to the media / engage in policy / invest in outreach. The outcome of this advice is that we are missing the voices and research results of an increasingly diverse pool of junior scientists. Universities and scientific societies have an opportunity to provide a “pull” mechanism by rewarding junior scientists specifically for their time spent in engagement. Consider establishing a prestigious campus or society award (e.g., as AAAS and AGU have) that will reward engaged scientists at all career stages.

A need for science-based decision making

Consider your campus and organizational climate carefully to determine whether the incentive structures that are in place encourage, or discourage, scientists from engaging (and read more on this topic here). Climate change — and many other scientific issues — deserve attention at the level of the individual scientist and the institution. And, for scientists, institutes, and universities that are uncomfortable with the concept of ‘advocating’ for outcomes — here is a gentle reminder that all we are advocating for is science to be used in decision making. Given that the majority of science accomplished in the US is publicly funded, universities should embrace the opportunity to make sure that science is making it into the public sphere.

Thanks to conversations with J. Palca, J. Foley, T. Lohwater, E. Simons & the AAAS Leshner Leadership cohort for inspiration and thoughtful suggestions on this post.

Contemplating ocean change from Brookings, OR