I recently attended the North American Congress for Conservation Biology in Madison, Wisconsin. The focus was “Communicating Science for Conservation Action.” This got me thinking about science communication. I also have a broken wrist, so I’m writing this with dictation software. This also makes me think about communication. So let me tell you a story.
Over the past decade a large number of opportunities have emerged to help train us conservation scientists in how to deliver an effective message to a nonscientific community. The Leopold Fellows, the Smith Fellows, the Liber Ero Fellows, the Wilberforce Fellows, and others all place a high value on developing effective communication skills among scientists. In fact, most of these programs do this training in more or less the same way. They all use Compass as a program to deliver training and communication skills. As these programs have matured and developed more senior alumni, this has finally worked its way into the structure of the annual conservation biology meetings. In Madison this year, we saw a large number of symposia that were structured to include media to discuss the stories that they heard during the symposium.
Great idea, but perhaps taken a little too far. One of the highlights for me, was going to the symposium on bright spots that was organized by a former Smith Fellow and a Wilburforce program officer, and featured several Liber Ero fellows. In this session, eight or so young scientists called stories of conservation successes. This was followed by a panel of media members to decompress on what they heard. A shocking, yet revealing, statement by one member of the press was: "I didn’t hear any stories." Sitting in the audience as a scientist who was expecting to hear about science in a meeting amongst scientists where science is conveyed, all I heard was stories. Given that each of these speakers had been through a Compass-led science communication training where they were coached on how to tell a story, I suspect that this statement was depressing.
So I spent some time thinking about this. What this person mean when they didn’t hear any stories considering that I felt all I heard was stories. They preface this by saying that I think the effective presentations clearly conveyed science that subtended the conservation success, but minimize the details of that science in favor of telling us the story of why it was important and how it became a conservation success. I actually thought they were great stories. After thinking about it for a time, I ended up concluding that what the member of the press actually meant was not that they didn’t hear a story but that they didn’t share a story that has some kind of compelling temporal component. Why was this a story today. Why should this story compete with Donald Trump call for Russian espionage on Hillary Clinton for space in the newspaper? Why should the story compete with the next story of senseless gun violence? And there I think the member of the press had a fair point.
California is in an extended drought, we have had several severe and large wildfires, we have report of over 66 million dead trees in the Sierra Nevada. Given that I work on these issues, I have actually spent more time in the past year talking to press than ever before. In fact, I finished two interviews with the press this morning. For both writers with whom I spoke this morning this was not going to be there first story on climate change, California’s drought, and wildfire. So what happened today, this week, this month that makes this a story now? The answer that lie somewhat in anticipation. August is around the corner, and the likelihood of a really big ripper of a fire in the Sierra Nevada will remain high for the next eight weeks.
Hence, I think the shortcoming of these particular talks I heard, and frankly, of the compass training, is that we pay too little attention to conveying why this is a story that is of interest today rather than one that may be of interest tomorrow.
So in the end, I was a bit disappointed by the conservation biology meetings because I think it had a bit too much of an emphasis on communication at the expense of communicating science to scientists. However, this seems like a good failure. Clearly, we have spent too little attention with communicating science nonscientists in the past. The fact that this particular meeting went a little overboard on that account suggests that we are a field that is heading down the right path.
I apologize, for grammar, misplaced, commas etc. I find it very difficult to dictate incomplete and grammatically correct sentences while speaking the punctuation. I’m trying to correct a few of those, but will undoubtedly miss many.
If you went to these meetings please write back. Tell us what you thought of the emphasis on communicating science at this scientific conference.
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