Thursday, March 27, 2014

Are we winning the science communication war?

Since the time that I was a young graduate student, there have been constant calls for ecologists to communicate more with the public and policy makers (Norton 1998, Ludwig et al. 2001). The impetus for these calls is easy to understand –we are facing serious threats to the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem health, and ecologists have the knowledge and facts that are needed to shape public policy. To some, it is unconscionable that ecologists have not done more advocacy, while others see a need to better educate ecologists in communication strategies. While the reluctance for some ecologists to engage in public communication could be due to a lack of skills that training could overcome, the majority likely has had a deeper unease. Like all academics, ecologists have many demands on their time, but are evaluated by research output. Adding another priority to their already long list of priorities can seem overwhelming. More fundamentally, many ecologists are in the business of expanding our understanding of the world. They see themselves as objective scientists adding to global knowledge. To these ‘objectivists’, getting involved in policy debates, or becoming advocates, undermines their objectivity.

Regardless of these concerns, a number of ecologists have decided that public communication is an important part of their responsibilities. Ecologists now routinely sit on the boards of different organizations, give public lectures, write books and articles for the public, work more on applied problems, and testify before governmental committees. Part of this shift comes from organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, which have become large, sophisticated entities with communication departments. But, the working academic ecologist likely talks with more journalists and public groups than in the past.

The question remains: has this increased emphasis on communication yielded any changes in public perception or policy decisions. As someone who has spent time in elementary school classrooms teaching kids about pollinators and conservation, the level of environmental awareness in both the educators and children surprises me. More telling are surprising calls for policy shifts from governmental organizations. Here in Canada, morale has been low because of a federal government that has not prioritized science or conservation. However signals from international bodies and the US seem to be promising for the ability of science to positively influence science.

Two such policy calls are extremely telling. Firstly, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which includes the governments of Mexico, Canada, and the USA, which normally deals with economic initiatives and disagreements, announced that they will form a committee to explore measures to protect monarch butterflies. They will consider instituting toxin-free zones, where the spraying of chemicals will be prohibited, as well as the construction of a milkweed corridor from Canada to Mexico. NAFTA made this announcement because of declining monarch numbers and calls from scientists for a coordinated strategy.

The second example is the call from 11 US senators to combat the spread of Asian carp. Asian carp have invaded a number of major rivers in the US, and have their spread has been of major concern to scientists. The 11 senators have taken this scientific concern seriously, requesting federal money and that the Army Corps of Engineers devise a way to stop the Asian carp spread.

There seems to be promising anecdotal evidence that issues of scientific concern are influencing policy decisions. This signals a potential shift; maybe scientists are winning the public perception and policy war. But the war is by no means over. There are still major issues (e.g., climate change) that require more substantial policy action. Scientists, especially those who are effective and engaged, need to continue to communicate with public and policy audiences. Every scientifically informed policy decision should be seen as a signal of the willingness of audiences to listening to scientists and that communicating science can work.

Ludwig D., Mangel M. & Haddad B. (2001). ECOLOGY, CONSERVATION, AND PUBLIC POLICY. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 32, 481-517.



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