CLIMATE SCIENTISTS CREATE NEWS PEG ABOUT THE RELEVANCE OF COASTAL DEVELOPMENT: Example of How Scientists Can Make Input on Policy Newsworthy; NY Times Covers Statement; But Other Media So Far Are Silent
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Ten climate scientists who disagree about the linkages between global warming and more intense hurricanes have released a joint statement warning that regardless of the resolution of the scientific debate, hurricanes remain a serious threat, and that policymakers need to rethink coastal development. On Tuesday, Andrew Revkin of the NY Times contributed this story on the announcement.
The joint statement is a leading example of how scientists can work with journalists to "negotiate" news about the policy relevance of science. It's a shift in thinking about public communication that is sorely needed.
I base my conclusion on the academic research I have been doing tracking quantitative trends in news coverage of science controversies. In this research, I follow how the image and level of attention to an issue shifts across news beats. This shift across news beats is often triggered by a shift in the type of policy arena where debate takes place, from regulatory and administrative arenas to overtly-political contexts like the WH and Congress.
As an average tendency across coverage, science writers focus on the release of a new scientific study or pause at times to write a more thematic technical backgrounder for readers. Sometimes science writers have the time and space to write about the policy angles, but for the most part, science journalism is dominated by these two types of stories.
The scientific community makes it easy for science writers, since a whole industry is built around trying to get news attention to a particular institution's or journal's latest study. And at the same time, scientists either lack the training, time, and motivation to project their findings towards policy problems.
But the tendency to define "what's news in science" as what is the latest study in the issue of Science or Nature leads to problems. What is often lost is forward looking coverage that starts to shine a light on what can be done about an emerging problem like hurricanes.
Political reporters are often thought of as the news beat where policy is supposed to be covered, but as an average trend this seldom happens. Instead, political reporters only start focusing on a policy problem usually when it comes on to the agenda of Congress or the White House. Instead of a thematic policy focus, political reporters too often focus on the "political game," who's ahead and who's behind in winning the policy battle, and which personalities are involved. If policy is backgrounded, it usually is bifurcated into a Dems vs. Republican policy discussion.
On the opinion pages, sometimes a broader range of policy options are raised, especially when an expert writes in with an op-ed, but with the rare exception of only a handful of the top columnists, policy discussion is usually once again boiled down to a Dems vs. GOP focus.
Scientists and their organizations need to rethink how they define what is newsworthy for journalists. The recent statement on hurricanes and coastal development is one such strategy. It's appearance in the agenda-setting pages of the NY Times is a good start. However, a quick Lexis search shows that the rest of the media has yet to cover the announcement.
Comments on these ideas are definitely welcome.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.