EGU journalism fellowship

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. 

Vegetation research in Finnish Lapland: mountains, sunshine and reindeer

People started warning me about the mosquitoes back in April. It sounded grim. But when I arrived in Finnish Lapland in August, the mozzies had peaked earlier in the season when temperatures were unusually high, and were all dead. This was a fortunate escape: Miska Luoto of the University of Helsinki and his team of researchers, who I was following as part of an EGU Science Journalism Fellowship, told me that in previous years they’ve even had to eat their sandwiches underneath protective mosquito net hats. Reindeer, on the other hand, were everywhere – on the road, on the fells, and even on the menu.

Peter le Roux surveys vegetation on the southern slopes of Saana Fell. (Credit: Liz Kalaugher)

Peter le Roux surveys vegetation on the southern slopes of Saana Fell. (Credit: Liz Kalaugher)

Not only was I lucky on the insect front and to win generous funding from the EGU, but the scientists were hugely welcoming, knowledgeable, carrying out interesting research that combines elements of ecology, geomorphology, hydrology and climate change, and extremely patient with all my questions. A team of eight post-docs and students at all levels – PhD, masters’ and undergraduate – had been in place for around six weeks when I visited in early August. Their surveys of vegetation, along with assessments of soil moisture, soil temperature and landscape factors, should reveal in more detail why plants just beyond the treeline grow where they do. As a result, the researchers will be able to fine tune their models of plant cover for much larger areas than they can survey, and use these species distribution models to predict how vegetation in the region will respond to climate change. Despite only occasional days off and working late into the evenings, the team were happy to be there. “It’s the best summer job I’ve ever had,” said one, with another adding that “it doesn’t feel like work”.

Heidi Mod examines juniper on the northern slopes of Saana Fell. (Credit: Liz Kalaugher)

Heidi Mod examines juniper on the northern slopes of Saana Fell. (Credit: Liz Kalaugher)

Perhaps the Finnish sauna habit helped – the research station at Kilpisjärvi, the team’s temporary base for the summer, has not one but two saunas – a wood-fired version by the lake, where researchers get a regular twice-weekly time-slot, and an electric one in the basement. Although, to the sauna connoisseur, electric saunas are somewhat inferior.

The weather was also good, apart from occasional showers, and the scenery was stunning – lakes and mountains in every direction, in a province with just two roads. For a location so remote, Kilpisjärvi is surprisingly well connected. There’s a mobile phone mast on top of Saana Fell so communications were easy, despite sometimes ending up on the Norwegian network if you headed too far north; Kilpisjärvi Biological Research Station is near the point where Finland, Sweden and Norway meet. Just down the road, Kilpisjärvi village has a large supermarket, often visited by Norwegians to buy (relatively) cheap food, including reindeer meat, and alcohol, so it was easy to stock up on snacks and research items like batteries for GPS kit.

A reindeer surveys researchers in front of Saana Fell. Image credit Liz Kalaugher

A reindeer surveys researchers in front of Saana Fell. (Credit: Liz Kalaugher)

It wasn’t until an evening trip to the Arctic Ocean in a fjord near Skibotn, Norway, around 50 km away that I realised I hadn’t seen sheep or the emerald green of meadow grass for days. The climate is more maritime here, both wetter and warmer, and it’s about 500 metres lower than Kilpisjärvi. The water in the fjord was an icy turquoise-grey and porpoises patrolled the central channel.

It’s light so late in the summer that there was no need to rush to get back from the field before nightfall, unless you wanted to make the 5 pm dinner serving at the research station. Although the sun nominally set at about midnight when I was there, with dawn at around 3 am, it was never truly dark. I began to sleep with a hat pulled down over my eyes to avoid being woken in the early hours. That was the strangest thing I found on my return – as I sat on the coach back from Heathrow, the sky darkened and there was my first sunset in a week.

I’d like to say a massive thank you to the EGU for funding the fellowship and to Miska Luoto, Peter le Roux, Heidi Mod, Julia Kemppinen, Pekka Niittynen, Jussi Mäkinen, Annina Niskanen, Joona Koskinen and Atte Laaka of the University of Helsinki for their hospitality and welcome.

You can read more about the trip, including details of the team’s research activities here.

By Liz Kalaugher, Editor of environmentalresearchweb

Environmentalresearchweb is a site that keeps scientists and policymakers up to the minute with the latest news and views on environmental topics from around the globe.