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Guest Thinkers

Ecologist Says Scientists Need to Re-Evaluate Approach to Communication

This month the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment published a special open access issue focused on science communication in environmental controversies. The issue features 6 review articles that address over-arching themes in science communication and public engagement; the role of universities; the role of Federal agencies; the role of individual scientists; the role of advocates; and the role of interface organizations such as cooperative extension offices.

Over the past several years, there has been increasing attention to communication and public engagement at flagship science journals. The special issue of Frontiers represents the most comprehensive discussion and examination to date.

Peter Groffman, a microbiologist at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in upstate New York, served as the guest editor for the special issue.  Last year he teamed with other Cary Institute staff and the editors of Frontiers to host an interdisciplinary conference focused on science communication, with the 6 articles at Frontiers co-authored by participants in the conference.

I was one of several co-authors who had the opportunity to team with Groffman on the “over-arching issues” paper. Titled “Restarting the Conversation: Challenges at the interface between ecology and society,” the paper reviews research on how the public and decision-makers learn, form opinions, and reach judgments about complex environmental problems such as climate change. In a table that I put together, the differences between how scientists and communication researchers tend to view these processes are summarized, with assumptions grouped by the “Deficit model” versus the “Public Engagement model.”

Groffman reflects on what he learned from the conference in a podcast produced by the Ecological Society of America, explaining the value of applying research from the social sciences to public engagement efforts. Groffman discusses the relevance of framing, the difference between the deficit model and new approaches to engagement, and emphasizes the important emerging role of blogging and social media.  He also responds to some who fear effective communication will mean “dumbing down” information.

As a follow-up, he took time out to answer a few questions that I sent along.  As Groffman notes at the end of the interview, a key next step is to develop the incentives and rewards at universities and institutions that would enable scientists to spend more time and effort on public engagement initiatives, a topic that is discussed in several of the published papers at Frontiers.  Over the next several weeks, I will be posting similar Q&A style interviews with lead authors of the other papers published at Frontiers.

Interview with Peter Groffman, Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies:

What motivated the Cary Institute to sponsor the conference and the special issue focusing on science communication in environmental controversies?

The Cary Institute has sponsored Cary Conferences every other year since 1983 to address critical issues in Ecology and Environmental Science. This conference was a follow-up to a Conference that we held in 1997 that addressed “successes, limitations and frontiers in ecosystem science.” At that conference, we realized that we had produced lots of information that was relevant to solving environmental problems, but that this information was not being used by society.

After organizing the conference and editing the papers, did your thinking on this topic change? Anything in particular surprise you?

The most exciting thing for me about this conference was our work with communication and public relations specialists that made me realize that our entire mode of interacting with the public needs to be revisited. We need to think less about just providing information to fill perceived knowledge deficits and to think more about engaging with the public using frameworks that are more relevant to their knowledge and values.

If you were to emphasize two key take away conclusions for scientists relative to public communication, what would they be?

First, recognize that the public holds scientists in very high regard. Second, while the public are keen to listen to us, they will only do so if we think more about our audiences.

What is your sense of how the special issue has been received among your colleagues and other scientists?

I was just at the Ecological Society of America meeting last week and got lots and lots of positive comments about the special issue. People are really interested in improving the flow of information from science to society and are excited about the ideas in these papers.

Why do you think there is some resistance to the recommendations and conclusions of the papers?

Some scientists are uncomfortable with the “public engagement” and “framing” ideas for science communication. Likely they are concerned that the content of their science will be diluted or misinterpreted if we focus less on the message and more on the medium.

Where do we go from here? What do you think are the next steps? What are the lingering questions do you think should be addressed?

I think that the next step is to come up with criteria for evaluating and giving credit for effective science communication. If we want scientists to engage with society, the institutions that they work for have got to give them credit for it. And the only way to get these institutions to give them credit is to come up with ways to evaluate the quality of their efforts.

See Also:

Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2009). What’s Next for Science Communication? American Journal of Botany, 96, (10), 1767-1778 (PDF).

Special Journal Issue Examines Science Communication in Environmental Controversies

Reconsidering Climate Change Literacy and Communication


Groffman, P., Stylinski, C., Nisbet, M., Duarte, C., Jordan, R., Burgin, A., Previtali, M., & Coloso, J. (2010). Restarting the conversation: challenges at the interface between ecology and society Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8 (6), 284-291 DOI: 10.1890/090160


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