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Geoscience communication: A smart investment

Geoscience communication: A smart investment

In this post, originally published in June 2017 on the blog of the Geological Society of America (GSA), Terri Cook, a science and travel writer and former winner of the EGU’s Science Journalism Fellowship, argues the importance of quality science communication as a means for scientists to make their research accessible to a broad audience. One way to achieve this is working with a science journalist who can help researchers bring their work to life. To facilitate this partnership and to encourage science journalists to develop an in-depth understanding of the research questions, approaches, findings and motivation which drives geoscientists, the EGU launched the Science Journalism Fellowship. Now in its 7th edition, the 2018 competition opens today. The fellowships enable journalists to report on ongoing research in the Earth, planetary or space sciences, with successful applicants receiving up to €5000 to cover expenses related to their projects. The deadline for applications is 5th December 2017.

The dissemination of new knowledge is an integral part of the scientific enterprise; regular publication of high-impact, peer-reviewed articles is one of the most important metrics for measuring a scientist’s success. Due to the technical nature of these manuscripts, however, such communication does not typically boost the public’s understanding of the specific study results — or of science in general.

Yet, according to the Science Literacy Project, scientific research and novel technologies “play a major role in key political, economic, cultural and social policy discussions, as well as in public dialogue.” In an age of “alternative facts” and shrinking science budgets, and a time when the U.S. risks losing its edge in research and development, advocating for an evidence-based approach to decision making, which is independent of political views, has become crucial. So too has successfully reaching policymakers and the public, who must wrestle with the science underpinning a host of geoscience-related issues with important societal ramifications, from energy development to procuring mineral resources vital to our national security, in order to make informed decisions.

While there is much that individual scientists can do to disseminate their research and promote civil discourse, including holding public talks, harnessing social media, and writing for popular audiences, these are time-consuming endeavors. In addition, communicating with a lay audience is a skill; it’s easy to become mired in jargon, and there may be gaps between what scientists assume the public knows and what it actually does, according to a 2013 article in the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education. Plus most scientists, according to that same article, don’t receive any formal training on how to communicate scientific topics to the public, and there is often little incentive to prioritize this.

Science journalists like myself arguably serve an important societal role by disseminating the results of rigorous, peer-reviewed research to broader audiences.

“Our common mission,” writes Alison Fromme in The Science Writers’ Handbook, “is to explain very complicated things with both maximum simplicity and maximum accuracy.” A significant part of our job is to ask tough questions. “This critical questioning is important, and what it needs more than anything else is experience,” said BBC News Correspondent Pallab Ghosh in a 2013 panel discussion.

But even as the need for experienced science journalists continues to rise, the number of full-time jobs in this field, as well as the pay rate for freelancers, continues to decrease while the workload has generally increased, according to a 2009 Nature survey. This has led to some alarm.

“Independent science coverage is not just endangered, it’s dying,” said science journalist Robert Lee Hotz of the Wall Street Journal.

What then can geoscientists do to help avert what Gosh has called “a crisis in science journalism”? Journalists need honest answers from scientists, including an assessment of a study’s limitations and flaws, as well as its significance, in order to provide a balanced assessment of the research. We also need quotations to help us communicate the relevance and impact of scientists’ findings. One of the easiest ways to acquire the insight and capture the myriad details necessary to write an informative and captivating article is to visit a researcher onsite. In the geosciences, this is often in the field. Yet there is little support for science journalists to do this; few outlets will pay such expenses, especially for freelancers, who account for roughly half the number of science journalists.

To encourage the in-depth understanding of geoscientists’ approaches, research questions, motivations, and findings, the European Geosciences Union (EGU) has established an annual Science Journalism Fellowship that provides funding specifically intended for journalists to visit geoscientists in the field. The annual award of €5000 is typically split between two recipients each year, so since its inception in 2012 a dozen journalists, including myself, have received awards.

While the journalists benefit, so too do the scientists; their research receives wide exposure in prestigious publications, and they are given the luxury of being able to explain the intricacies of their work, such as dating previous motion along major faults in Nepal, and its implications first-hand and directly answering journalists’ questions as they arise.

But I would argue that it’s the general public who benefits the most. During the fellowship’s first four years, the seven recipients produced 18 pieces of science reporting, ranging from blog articles to a book, in a wide variety of outlets that included Nature, Science, Der Tagesspiegel, and EGU’s GeoLog blog. The topics, which are proposed by the journalists, have covered a broad range of geoscience disciplines, from the disastrous historic eruption of Iceland’s Laki volcano and fracking in Europe to my proposal about using dams to unleash artificial floods in order to restore rivers’ ecological integrity.

Recognizing the many potential benefits of better communicating the value of geoscience, the Geological Society of America (with the help of several generous donors) also recently established an annual Science Communication Fellowship.  The intent of this ten-month position is to help improve communication of geoscience knowledge between the members of GSA and the non-scientific community. I hope that other societies will soon follow suit. We are living in a period of unprecedented human influence on climate and the environment; establishing these awards sends a strong signal that geoscience communication is a priority — as well as a smart investment.

Terri Cook is a freelance science and travel writer based in Boulder, Colorado. 

We are hiring: be our next Communications Officer!

We are hiring: be our next Communications Officer!

Do you have an interest in the Earth, space and planetary sciences and love blogging and using social media channels to communicate that passion? Then our latest job opening might be just right for you!

We are looking for a Communications Officer to work with the EGU Media and Communications Manager in maintaining and further developing media- and science-related communications between the EGU and its membership, the working media and the public at large. The officer will be tasked with (among others):

  • Manage the official EGU blog, including writing, commissioning and editing posts
  • Administer the EGU network of blogs, including division blogs
  • Manage the Union’s social media presence year-round
  • Work as a point of contact for early career scientists at the EGU office

We are looking for a good team player with excellent interpersonal, organisational, and communication skills to fill this role. The successful applicant will have an academic degree (e.g. MA, MSc, PhD), preferably in the geosciences or related scientific disciplines or in communication sciences. Candidates should also have the ability to understand and translate complex science into simple concepts and write about scientific research to general audiences in an engaging and accurate manner, as well as an expert command of English. Non-European nationals are eligible to apply.

To get a feel for what the position involves why not read this post by the current post holder, Laura Roberts Artal? Laura is happy to answer questions about what the role involves day-to-day, so feel free to contact here with questions at networking@egu.eu or on +49 (0)89 2180-6717.

The deadline for application is 5 November 2017. The expected start time for this position is January 2018.

Further details about the position and how to apply can be found here.

Feel free to contact Dr Bárbara Ferreira, the Media and Communications Manager, at media@egu.eu or on +49-89-2180-6703 if you have any questions about the position.

GeoPolicy: What are European Commission Consultations and how can scientists contribute?

GeoPolicy: What are European Commission Consultations and how can scientists contribute?

The European Commission requires both expert advice and an understanding of public opinion to steer policy and draft new EU legislation proposals that will be introduced to both the Council and the EU Parliament to debate.

The EU Commission regularly hosts hearings, workshops, expert groups and consultations to gain valuable insights, prompt discussion and help draft policy.  These forums may be restricted to certain groups or open to everyone. Participants within these forums not only include scientific experts who can provide well researched advice and potential solutions, but also the general public who can deliver an insight into the views of EU citizens, mobilize societal support for policy plans and legitimise the policy proposal process.

This week’s blog is going to specifically focus on the European Commission’s Consultations. Consultations are often the beginning of the EU legislation process and allow all interested stakeholders (both individuals and organisations) to provide expertise or submit their opinion on a particular topic or policy process via an online questionnaire.

New Consultations are published frequently and are usually open for three months with topics ranging from taxation to Europe’s space strategy. Each Consultation questionnaire is published alongside background documents which provide the responder with as much information about the issue as feasible.

Why contribute to EU Consultations?

Consultations are one of the easiest and quickest methods of sharing your research and expertise with the EU Commission and to contribute to the EU policymaking process!

Contributions can be submitted in any EU language, are open to everyone and respondents are generally able to skip questions that they do not feel they are comfortable with or able to answer.

Keeping up with and contributing to Consultations relevant to your work could increase your ability to understand the policy relevance of your research. This may be valuable when talking with policy-sector personnel or when explaining the relevance of your research in grant or funding proposals. It may also inspire you to discover other aspects of your research you may not have thought to explore otherwise.

The individual responses to Consultations are often posted online. However, contributors can elect to complete the questionnaire anonymously and have their personal information omitted from the final report.

Publicly contributing to an EU Consultation allows others working in a similar area to view your response and gain a better understanding of your competence and interest in the topic. Likewise, you are also able to view the responses of others who have publicly contributed. This could open up new networks, giving you more opportunities to engage with others who have a similar focus.

While it may seem difficult, if not impossible, to share your expertise through a 20-minute online questionnaire, most of the Consultations provide you with the opportunity to upload supporting documents. This allows those evaluating the responses to reflect on specific aspects of your research.

How to contribute to EU Commission Consultations

The EU Commission’s Consultation process is straight-forward and user-friendly – at least as far as EU procedures go! The toughest part is finding a relevant Consultation to respond to. Do try to find a Consultation that is aligned with your area of expertise but don’t be deterred if there isn’t a Consultation matching the exact title of your latest research.

If you would like to share your research but cannot find an EU Commission Consultation relevant to your area of expertise, you can view the list of upcoming Consultation topics or subscribe to the Your Voice in Europe mailing list which will alert you to new Consultations as well as recently-published Roadmaps.

Alternatively, you can sign up for the EGU’s Database of Expertise which sends information regarding relevant EU initiatives and potential science-policy opportunities to its members.

Be prepared to do some additional homework! Questions within a particular Consultation may refer to a legislation, initiative or action plan (see the example below). It’s important that you know, or at least have an idea, about what the question is referring to as it will enable you to answer the Consultation question fully.

 

Example of questions from the ‘Public consultation on the implementation of the Atlantic action plan’ Consultation

 

Remember that it’s a learning process. It is often challenging to relate your area of expertise to policy themes and answer questions on complicated topics in less than 1000 characters. But the more familiar you get with the process the easier it will become!

Sources / Additional reading

[1] – The European Commission’s use of consultation during policy formulation: The effects of policy characteristics

[2] – Evaluating pluralism: diversity of interest groups’ policy demands and preference attainment in the European Commission’s open Consultations. evidence from the EU Environmental Policy

Union-wide events at EGU 2017

Union-wide events at EGU 2017

Wondering what to expect at the General Assembly this year? Here are some of the highlights:

Union Symposia (US)

For events which will have general appeal, regardless of your field of research, look no further than the Union Symposia.  In particular, if you want to stand up for science at a time when (some) politics seems at odds with science, come along to Union Symposia 3, Make Facts Great Again. An impressive panel composed of Christine McEntee (AGU Executive Director), Sir David King (Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government 2000–2007), Christiana Figueres (Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2010–2016) and Heike Langenberg (Nature Geoscience Chief Editor) will discuss what can scientists do to further the progress of scientific research and ensure mainstream scientific views are accepted and taken seriously by policymakers and the public.

The very first of the Union Symposia, organized in collaboration with the European and maerica space agencies (ESA and NASA) will highlight Earth observation missions and there will be talks on ESA’s and NASA’s planetary and space programmers. On Wednesday, scientists from different fields will come together to explore the key role plants play in the climate system in Union Symposia 1: Vegetation-climate interactions across time scales Finally, there’s the EGU Awards Ceremony – set to celebrate excellent research and achievement in the Earth, planetary and space sciences.

Great Debates (GDB)
This year we’re holding not one, not two, but six Great Debates! The topics covered this year are varied, from: Arctic environmental change: global opportunities and threats (organized with AGU), through to whether 2 degrees is possible without relying on carbon storage and capture? Scientific publishing is also hot on the Great Debate agenda, with two debates dedicated to the subject, including the very first early career scientist (ECS) specific Great Debate: Should early career scientists be judged by their publication record? A set of group debates.  Discussions also explore the Earth’s deep past (Great Debate on Great Extinctions) and the planet’s future (transition to next generation cities and planet Earth future).  Whether you are in Vienna or elsewhere, be sure to follow and join in the debates using #EGU17GDB on twitter.

Educational & Outreach Symposia (EOS)
Educational and Outreach Symposia are sessions dedicated to all things education and outreach, and include the Geosciences Information for Teachers (GIFT) workshop, a long-running event for high school teachers that helps shorten the time between discovery and textbook.

Medal Lectures and Lectures organized by related scientific societies (ML, LRS)
There will be five Lectures organized by related scientific societies as well as a grand total of 45 Medal Lectures this year!

Meet EGU (EGU)
Meet EGU does exactly what it says on the tin – these sessions are a great opportunity to get to know your division president and early career representative, put faces to names and find out what’s going on in the Union.

Townhall Meetings (TM)
Townhall Meetings allow participants to take part in a lot of open discussion. This year’s meetings cover a huge variety of topics, from a discussion, moderated by ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programmes, on how space data impacts EGU participants, through to questioning the formalizatin of the “Anthropocene” and how the interconnection between Open Access, Open Data and Free Open Source Software can be improved to develop the Open Science movement.

Splinter Meetings (SPM)
Like Townhall Meetings, Splinter Meetings are organised by participants, but they are typically smaller and can be either public or by invitation only.

The EGU General Assembly is taking place in Vienna, Austria from 23 to 28 April. Check out the full session programme on the General Assembly website.