Perhaps it is my recent interest in science communication that made this group stand out to me. I’ve only been to one previous Greenhouse conference before and my memory fails me as to whether there was a similar communication presence. This latest meeting in the conference series had its own science communication stream, where experts in this niche presented about new and innovative ways to reach the general public on various climate and weather-related topics, including the issue of human-induced climate change. I even participated in a casual forum of five early career researchers, where one of my fellow panel members was a trained, successful, and engaging science communicator.
Now, I’m aware that perhaps not everyone in this industry has the same enthusiasm I do about communication. This could be for various reasons, whether they be personal or professional. But no matter how we slice and dice it, climate change, and therefore climate science, is a topical and contemporary subject. So does this mean that science and communication can mix?
If this was a black and white issue, then there would simply be two camps: yes, like cake and icing, or no, like oil and water.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first and start off with some of the reasons why some climate scientists say NO. Firstly, the media as a terrible reputation of misrepresenting stories, and at times, has been thought to have a hidden agenda. It is quite understandable that someone does not want to place their hard work, and potentially, their reputation on the line, all for a 5-minute (or less) interview and their misquoted findings forever etched somewhere in stone. Some may say that since the life cycle of the media is so short, a misquoted piece will go away as soon as it emerges. But due to the nature of the scientific method, scientists spend years gathering their results and have trouble believing that something disappears as quickly as it appeared. Moreover, like the bad press that continually follows anyone in the public eye - politician or celebrity, some may fear that these reports could resurface at any time only to bring us back down.
Secondly, talking to the media takes up precious research time. Generally before an interview, one needs to plan exactly what to say – you only have a few minutes if you’re really lucky, and trying to condense a few years or so worth of research down to a few sound bytes is challenging to say the least. And if you’re fearful of being misrepresented, you’ve got all the more pressure on you. Sometimes you might be asked to provide comment on a particular research article or study, that due to embargoes you haven't seen yet. So there goes a couple of hours just reading and critically evaluating the study, before you’ve even worked out what your main points are. And if you’ve been asked to write an opinion piece or article – well sheesh, there goes full day at best!
Thirdly, it is not actually part of our job description, formal training, or qualifications. Scientists are trained to critically analyse physical processes, and present their findings to like-minded peers at conferences and within scientific journals. We are not trained, nor generally possess the natural ability to present our findings in a way that everyone can understand, let alone appreciate or find them as exciting as we do. This may seem a bit of a cop-out to some, but it’s more than enough motivation to others to just continue along their research trajectory without attracting too much attention to themselves.
Ok, now for the “cake and icing” camp.
For some climate scientists that enjoy communication activities, it’s all about the challenge. I mentioned above that we are not trained in this area, nor do we have a natural ability, so acquiring communication skills and using them effectively is definitely a challenge. Moreover, it’s a very rewarding one, particularly when people’s feedback is positive, and, better yet, they now make sense of something they didn’t before And a lot of scientists see a challenge as a good and gratifying exercise. After all, our job is full of researching things we don’t know, and the excitement of acquiring new skills and findings is what gets us out of bed every morning.
The communication of climate science can also bring fulfillment, meaning and purpose to your research. I have lately hard by various sources that those who communicate, particularly over the internet, are narcissists and just want the attention. I strongly disagree with this broad generalization. The communication of our work brings purpose to our RESEARCH, not to US. We do our job because we find it interesting, it means something and it’s our passion, not because it puts us in the public eye (I think you’d find celebrities fit more into this category). However, since our research means something to the general public and policy and not just one small fraction of a particular research, communicating it affectively to the masses is like the final cheery on a sundae (or icing on the cake, so to say).
And on the note of climate science being so topical, communication provides the opportunity to put the right information and the right science out there. You’re the expert, and should be the first port of call. It gives you and your peers the perfect change to counteract the “hearsay” and misinformation that may be circulating, whatever the reason. Although I discussed above that this may be a turn-off for some, it is definitely a motivation for others, as it gives the public the opportunity to weigh up both sides of the argument themselves, instead of just being berated by the same, Il-formed statements all the time. After all, who would YOU trust, when it comes to your health for example? A car mechanic? A lawyer? An accountant? Or a doctor?
The same theory applies to climate science.
Of course science and communication, particularly in the field of climate science is no black and white issue. There are many shades of grey where various scientists decide their own level of communication based on their personal beliefs and decisions. But what is definite, however, is the growing interest, resources, and forms of communication delivery that now exist. To me, this indicates that communication and climate science can indeed mix, and not only that, but it is the scientists can control to the extent at which this mix occurs (and how mic.