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science communication

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: IPCC decides on fresh approach for next major report

GeoPolicy: IPCC decides on fresh approach for next major report

This month’s GeoPolicy post is a guest post from Sarah Connors, a Science Officer in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 1 Technical Support Unit (and former EGU Science Policy Officer). The IPCC is starting its sixth cycle, in which hundreds of scientists take stock of the world’s climate change knowledge by assessing the current scientific literature and then summarising this into three reports. These findings then play a vital role in supporting evidence-based climate policy around the world. The outlines, which focus on what each report will cover, were approved at a recent meeting in Montreal, Canada. This GeoPolicy post will summarise the new Working Group 1 outline and highlight how scientists can be authors in this IPCC cycle.

The process

Picture this, hundreds of delegates from countries all over the world descended on Montreal two weeks ago to discuss climate change. The gathering of all IPCC member states, known as the Plenary, occurs twice a year – this one was number 46. On the agenda was to discuss and approve the three Working Group (WG) outlines. These are lists of chapter titles and indicative bullets highlighting the topics that authors could focus on during their assessment. Almost 200 scientists drew up these proposed outlines in a meeting this summer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Each WG took it in turn to present their draft outlines to the Plenary. Country delegates then had the opportunity to ask for clarification and provide feedback, where needed. The WG Bureau (acclaimed scientists selected to steer this IPCC cycle) would then answer clarifying questions and note down all the suggestions from the floor. The Bureau then modified the outlines and presented them again to the Plenary, repeating the process as required until there was a consensus among all countries. With 195 countries being members of the IPCC, this made for long working sessions in Montreal, sometimes running late into the evening. But achieving consensus is a vital stage in the IPCC process. If all countries agree then it provides a strong platform for policy decisions to then be discussed.

The result was a huge success. All three WG outlines were accepted with minor changes (click to see the outlines for WG1, WG2, and WG3). We now have a new, easy-to-follow style for the next IPCC Working Group 1 report. In a nutshell, it will be more holistic and shorter, with increased focus on short-lived species, extremes, and regional information.

Working Group 1 (WG1) examines the physical science basis underpinning past, present and future climate change. The second working group (WG2) looks the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, consequences and options for adaptation. The third working group (WG3) explores pathways for limiting greenhouse gas emissions, known as climate change mitigation.

What’s new in the WG1 report? A focus on the physical science basis…

As a Science Officer based in the WG1 Technical Support Unit (TSU), my role, along with my other TSU colleagues, was to keep track of the suggested outline changes and make sure the Bureau didn’t miss anything. The new outline has changed considerably compared to the last cycle (AR5), I think for the better.

Firstly, AR5 had more chapters (14 compared to 12), which were structured beginning with what we know about climate change from observations (inc. paleo data), followed by climate processes (i.e., biogeochemical cycles) and then finishing with climate modelling (i.e., model evaluation and projections). One reason being that the scientific community’s research is structured around these themes. The next assessment (AR6) outline however, is better suited to the report’s end-users, who usually prefer having everything about a given topic all in one place. Therefore, the AR6 report will be more holistic. For example, Chapter 3 (Human influence on the climate system) will assess observational, process, and modelling literature, whereas in AR5 this literature would have been spread across multiple chapters.

Comparing the AR5 and AR6 WG1 outlines

Secondly, the new report will be shorter. Since the first IPCC assessment, the WG1 report has dramatically increased in length. If this continues, projections show that the AR6 report would be almost 2000 pages long and would weigh just under 5kg! Rather than repeating the work of previous assessments, the new report will provide more of an update since the AR5, thus reducing its length.

Additionally, there will be greater focus on short-lived climate forcers (Chapter 6) and extreme events (Chapter 11) than in AR5. This may include assessing literature on how climate change and air quality are interconnected in Chapter 6 and the detection and attribution of single extreme events in Chapter 11.

Finally, there is a greater regional focus in the report’s final three chapters. Much of the information developed here will support further assessment in the WG2 report, which focuses on regional climate change impacts.

Happy members of the WG1 Bureau and Technical Support Unit after approval of the WG1 report outline. Photo credit: IISD/ENB | Mike Muzurakis

Getting involved in the next steps

With the outline agreed, the IPCC is now looking for authors to compile the report. Scientists are selected based on their expertise, publication record, and coordination skills. Regional diversity, gender and previous IPCC experience are all taken into account in the selection of authors to ensure broad representation. Roughly two-thirds of the authors are new to the IPCC each cycle. Once nominations close (27 October),  the authors will be selected and will get to work drafting the report. The whole process takes about four years, with the report planned for release in Spring 2021.

The IPCC actively encourages early career scientists (ECS) to participate in AR6, either as an author, an expert reviewer, or through publishing timely papers. Watch the video below for more information of ECS participation in AR6 or email the WG1 Technical Support Unit with any questions.

For more information please watch the YESS community youtube video on How can you get involved in the IPCC as an Early Career Scientist.

By Sarah Connors, Science Officer in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Further reading:

The IPCC and the Sixth Assessment cycle

IPCC calls for nominations of authors for the Sixth Assessment Report

Guest post: What will be in the next IPCC climate change assessment

The Carbon Brief Interview: Valérie Masson-Delmotte

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