Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ocean Sciences Day 2: Science communication

Wednesday was the day for plenary sessions at the Ocean Sciences conference - thousands of scientists crammed into a massive hall to listen to the most erudite in the field discuss various subjects. One of the more interesting talks (out of an amazing SIX plenary talks) was by Dr. Chris Reddy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who spoke about his perceptions of the scientific response to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Dr. Reddy described his view of the many successes of the scientific response to the spill - very quick mobilization time for cruises, accessing funding quickly, rapid data analysis and modeling - and also the many short-comings. Key amongst those was the difficulties that the scientific community seems to have communicating outside of the sciences, or even particular disciplines. Dr. Reddy described how the pride felt by the scientific community regarding its quick response to the spill was not necessarily shared by the responders (i.e. the US Coast Guard and others) and the media. Not surprisingly, this particular problem of science communication is a key theme of the Ocean Sciences conference as a whole.

Scientists are safe within our disciplines. Essentially, we can talk rather speculatively regarding hypotheses with colleagues because we know that our comments will be interpreted as, well, hypotheses. If a scientists spouts off to another scientist, generally its a fun discussion but all parties know that, without some serious data and analysis to back it up, its all just speculation. Increasingly, though, trained scientists are being asked to communicate outside their disciplines, where the rules of the game aren't so clear.

I am into this. I think it is a good thing. I have colleagues who view this blog as dangerous, and potentially career-limiting. Scientists shouldn't discuss data or speculative ideas outside of the peer-reviewed milieu, they might say. So far its worked out, but that could be because I work in a pretty un-sexy discipline (coastal geomorphology) and have about 2 readers. But that may not always be the case. Lets imagine that in the Pacific Northwest we get a sudden and rapid acceleration in sea level rise (a possibility - far from certain - raised by some recent analyses of sea-level patterns in the Northeast Pacific) which is associated with severe and widespread erosion. Suddenly those of us who work in this discipline could be on the hot seat, and some of the things I have or will write or say could come under uncomfortable scrutiny. On balance, its a risk I am willing to take.

Others are as well. I was recently invited to participate in the University of Washington's School of the Environment "Science Communication Task Force". As far as I can tell I was recruited for two reasons - I work for Sea Grant, which has as its goal the translation of academic science into useful information for communities, and also because of this blog. Through that I've learned others at the University of Washington are very willing to accept the risks associated with science communication, and that the College of the Environment is in the process of putting together a directory of the various blogs and other tools used by those scientists.

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