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Science Communication Both an Opportunity and an Obligation


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In the 1980s I was working in the middle of nowhere to build Louisiana’s first marine laboratory. We had two new research vessels in the works, but before they were in the water, my colleagues and I were working farther offshore in the Gulf of Mexico than we should have, in small boats on unpredictable seas.   We were beginning to document a disturbing region in the Gulf where the oxygen is depleted from bottom waters during the summer.

Eventually, with the help of our new ships, we found that this zone could extend over 7,000 square miles – that’s bigger than the state of Connecticut – over which conditions are too oxygen-poor for bottom-dwelling fish and shrimp to survive. Eventually, we surmised that the cause of this oxygen depletion is runoff from fertilizer use in the Midwestern Corn Belt, flowing hundreds of miles down the Mississippi River to the Gulf.

Our findings were met with considerable skepticism, even among fellow scientists.  In an effort to bring more public attention to this low-oxygen problem, we began working with a very green reporter from the local newspaper.  It was such a complicated phenomenon we had to help him with his story and spent weeks going back and forth, working on the story.  But, it was this young journalist who, borrowing the title from Stephen King’s novel, coined the term “Dead Zone” to describe it.  At first we objected because not everything was dead in this zone, but it’s a powerful image. The name stuck and now such “dead zones” have been documented in over 500 places around the world and included as a Google Earth layer.

A decade later, after moving to Maryland, I was working with an organization that helped scientists communicate with the news media on important issues related to the oceans, a forerunner of the very successful COMPASS.  The Gulf Dead Zone, by then well documented in the scientific literature, was one of those issues that we figured needed more public awareness and policy attention.  We were able to interest Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joby Warrick in doing a story on the front page, above the fold, of the Washington Post.

With some background help from me—I wasn’t even quoted in the article—Warrick told a compelling story, effectively explaining this rather complex phenomenon for a lay audience, as well as the Washington elite (The Post is the daily newspaper for many members of Congress and Federal agency heads).  On the day the story appeared, Louisiana Senator John Breaux, who was already well aware of our research, asked the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to meet with him on what could be done about the Dead Zone.  He shortly scheduled a boat trip on the Gulf to inspect the problem firsthand.

A few days later, I was participating in a briefing related to the Chesapeake Bay with the Maryland’s Governor Parris Glendening.   I noticed that the Governor, a former university professor, had actually read his thick briefing book: it was earmarked and annotated.  Frustrated with being presented too much information devoid of big ideas, he turned to me and said: “Why, did you know there this is this big dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that seems exactly the same problem we are struggling to deal with here in the Chesapeake?  I read about it in the Washington Post.  We should be thinking about national solutions.”

A single news story sparked the Governor’s big idea and spurred a Senator and agency heads to action.  I could never have galvanized their understanding or motivated action through technical reports and powerpoint presentations.  In fact, I am convinced that the news story played a significant role in the congressional direction to create a federal-state task force to develop an action plan to reduce oxygen depletion of Gulf waters.

Why is this so?  Well, political leaders are attuned to what the public knows and believes.  The news media can be very effective in educating citizens, the millions life-long learners we could never reach over a career of lectures.  And through this public forum the media can directly create political awareness and shape opinion in ways that are just not possible through our governmental technocracy.

Engagement with the news media can be enormously gratifying as the public becomes aware of our research and sometimes decision-makers even act on it.  Though it can sometimes generate backlash, my experience is that effective science communication can enhance one’s reputation in the community of our scientific peers, even paying dividends in papers accepted and grants received.

More essentially, though, isn’t it the responsibility of those of us supported by the public to do science to report back to them when we uncover something they should know about?  And just think about all the media pathways through which this can now happen beyond the traditional news brands.

Effectiveness in the public communication of science takes training, practice and experience.  That is why, as an academic administrator, I encourage active engagement by my faculty colleagues with the media and provide them support to do so.  And that is why I stress scientific communication skills for our graduate students.

But, more broadly, sustained commitment is required to the application of science, one of the pillars of modern scholarship. This requires active engagement with society in helping to shape its future, an engagement that returns bountiful rewards for scientists and for science. I challenge fellow scientists to join me and the many scientists today who are pushing ourselves and supporting each other to be effective communicators of science needed to navigate this changing world.

This post is part of a series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences inspired by a new COMPASS commentary in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. Read the summary post here.

Reference:

Smith B, Baron N, English C, Galindo H, Goldman E, et al. (2013) Community Page COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement. PLOS Biology 11(4). doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001552.

Images courtesy of the National Oil Spill Commission

Donald Boesch About the Author: Dr. Donald Boesch is a biological oceanographer who has authored two books and more than 90 papers on marine benthos, estuaries, wetlands, continental shelves, oil pollution, nutrient over-enrichment, environmental assessment and monitoring and science policy. He is a Professor of Marine Science and President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. From June 2002 through October 2003, Dr. Boesch also served as Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs of the University System of Maryland. In 2008, Dr. Boesch was given the additional responsibility of Vice Chancellor for Environmental Sustainability to lead the University System's Environmental Sustainability Initiative. A native of New Orleans, Dr. Boesch received his B.S. from Tulane University and Ph.D. from the College of William & Mary. He was a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Queensland and subsequently served on the faculty of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. In 1980 he became the first Executive Director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, where he was also a Professor of Marine Science at Louisiana State University. He assumed his present position in Maryland in 1990. Presently, his research focuses on the use of science in ecosystem management. In 2010, he was appointed by President Obama to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. He also served on the National Research Council's Committee that produced the report America's Climate Choices, and recently served as the Chair of the NRC's Ocean Studies Board. Follow on Twitter @DonBoesch.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. Miaohua 2:40 pm 05/1/2013

    This article is really communicative, and I know the origin of ‘dead zone’ from this article. Also, the media play a significant role between scientists and public.

    Link to this
  2. 2. brooke.smith 6:52 pm 05/2/2013

    Thanks for sharing this story, Don. One of the things I love about it, is that it illustrates that you never know what will happen when you engage and communicate. Much like the pursuit of science, you’re not chasing a predetermined outcome, but it’s fascinating to see where you end up.

    Also, thanks for being an academic leader who supports and acknowledges your faculty that does engage in outreach. We need more institutional leaders like you who do this!

    Link to this
  3. 3. hmgalindo 6:44 pm 05/3/2013

    I had no idea that was where the term “dead zone” came from! I love seeing intersections of pop culture and science. Your story is also reminding me how critical it is for scientists to build (and maintain) relationships with journalists and policymakers because you never know when there is going to be a breaking story related to your expertise. And when that happens, those reporting and making decisions will want to turn to scientists they already know and trust.

    Link to this
  4. 4. scivideographer 11:46 am 01/8/2014

    Don, while I agree wholeheartedly with your message, I find that colleagues and students fail to participate in public communication of science for a number of reasons, one of them being a lack of skills in the technologies underpinning modern electronic communications that are most effective and that the public prefers (video, animation, interactive graphics). Most science students are still being taught to communicate based on a 17th century model of printed words—and with a primarily technical audience.

    Although a scientist can work with a media specialist, many lack the funds and/or access to such resources. This is especially true of students and early-career scientists. Consequently, students and scientists not only need guidance in how to talk to the media or how to craft an effective message, they need multimedia skills.

    There is also the perception that broader science communication takes time away from preparation of technical communications (journal articles, conference presentations) and will not really benefit one’s career substantially.

    That was certainly my perception until about eight years ago. I’ve since discovered that having multimedia skills has not only opened new avenues of communication for me, these skills are helping me develop better technical science articles, presentations, and books with rich, interactive content.

    My skills are self-taught, but this is something that needs to be taught formally in science curricula.

    http://thescientistvideographer.com/wordpress

    Link to this

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