Public interest in climate change has exploded over the last decade. The increased exposure of public audiences to the scientific discourse, however, is not always straightforward. By the time scientific understanding has migrated to the public domain it has often been distilled multiple times, by multiple parties. This can lead to misinterpretation of the original message.
Given this, shouldn’t climate scientists try harder at communicating their findings direct to the public?
This isn’t to say that science-public interaction is anything new. A great number of climate scientists already engage very effectively in science outreach through television, radio, newspapers, blogs and social media outlets, to name but a few. Engaging with wider audiences allows climate scientists to share the research journey and explore the broader applicability of their subject. After all, these are the reasons many of us have selected a scientific career in the first place.
Climate scientists belong to a global network of collaboration and interaction which goes largely unseen by the public. Through greater transparency, increased public understanding may follow. What is more, in the UK, environmental experts are responsible for millions of pounds of government funding. When research is publically funded, scientists are obliged to communicate their findings to wider audiences in an accessible manner. The recent shift in the UK towards open access publication may in part facilitate this data dissemination.
Science outreach is not without its difficulties. By their training, academics are, among other things, skilled researchers, authors, teachers and speakers. But they do not necessarily possess the skills to translate their findings into material suitable for public consumption.
Another important consideration is the fact that ‘the public’ is actually better defined as ‘the publics’, each with varying levels of engagement. To address all publics, academics are required to be entertainers as well as educators.
Even for scientists intending to communicate with public audiences, the demands of research mean that prioritising public outreach is not always possible. Scientists are formally evaluated on the basis of their research output. There is often little more than personal reward for outreach work. This is changing, however, and a number of research councils now cite public outreach as a proviso for securing funding.
Many climate scientists have become wary of outreach due to a number of highly publicised incidents including lawsuits, data misrepresentation, and even death threats. A post by John Abraham touched on the need to protect scientists from such defamation. If this continues, it is likely that researchers will require a degree of coaxing to continue putting themselves in the public spotlight.
If these problems can be dealt with now, hopefully upcoming scientists will not be deterred by previous attacks. We need to better equip scientists with the skills to address wider audiences, develop secure public platforms for data dissemination, and pressure research bodies to recognise public outreach as a valuable scientific output.
Even with these measures in place, engaging with non-scientists is a personal decision. It is a fine line between rewarding those who do, and penalising those who don’t.
This article was first published on 22 July 2013 by The Guardian.