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Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

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

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

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