Princeton Scientist Tells Earth Researchers: Speak Out

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Geoscientists want everyone, including policymakers, to understand their work and its possible ramifications for society. But on Wednesday, an overflow crowd of 400 at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting here received some practical advice about getting the message out.

"Communication with the public is not a monologue, it's a dialogue," said Princeton University climatologist Michael Oppenheimer. "We should get used to being public people." Climate scientist Jay Gulledge of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia, said, "There used to be arguments in sessions like this between those who said, 'Keep your nose clean,' and others who said, 'Go talk to politicians.' You don't hear those [arguments] anymore."

Oppenheimer's talk was part of a bevy of presentations at the weeklong meeting devoted to communicating science to a broader audience. The initiative, part of AGU's increased emphasis on the topic, included workshops on speaking and science blogging and a panel with several authors of books on climate (including this reporter).

Oppenheimer said he felt scientists had opportunities to meet with local politicians, speak to their neighbors or friends about climate science, and talk to the media when appropriate. "Blogging on controversial issues, going on television to talk about climate, or taking on skeptics is not for everybody," Oppenheimer said. "But you don't have to be a Steve Schneider or a Jim Hansen to make a difference."

He also emphasized the limits of speaking out. "Don't use your science as a cloak for what are really ethical or policy issues," said Oppenheimer. "Lay out your biases," he advised, but added the warning, "Expect to be vilified, even for making technical points."

Others provided some additional tips. "Your power does not need to come from becoming an excellent communicator," said Greg Craven, a member of the authors' panel. Craven is an Oregon science teacher whose homemade videos on climate change have garnered millions of views on YouTube. "It is the public seeing the fact that you are participating and that you are concerned, or even terrified."

Paleontologist Tom Dunkley Jones of Imperial College London says he agrees that "there's a real gap" between science and the public that researchers should try to fill. "For many of us, we know our little bit of [climate] science," he said. "But it's dangerous to go out of our safety zone" to counter the arguments from skeptics, he added. He said he hoped that delivering lectures to undergraduates, which he will be doing soon, would train him on a broader swath of the field.

Civil rights attorney Joyce Schon of progressive group By Any Means Necessary encouraged participants to display their passion for the cause. "Your role is to discover the truth and lay down your lives to disseminate it," she told attendees during a panel discussion. The group distributed flyers asking scientists to "Defend our Science and to Fight for the Real Political Action Necessary to Solve the Environmental Crisis."

This fall, AGU announced it has added to its board prominent left-leaning blogger Chris Mooney and analyst Floyd DesChamps, a former science policy staffer for John McCain. In June, AGU started an experts' referral service for journalists. "It used to be you published your paper and you were done," said remote-sensing expert Steven Lloyd of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, a member of the scientific committee for this year's meeting. "Now that's just the first step. Welcome to the new AGU."