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Every summer, when I visit my boreal field plots, I cross fingers that we don't chain saw through a nest of bees when we sample rotting logs for our log decomposition studies. They say athletes can slow their perception of time. The same can be said of the moment when bees boil out of a freshly cut log and you process what is about to happen. It is slow motion prior to the appropriate reaction, which in this case is simple: Run. Run fast and hope your collaborators are slower than you.
As a scientist raised by two journalists, I can't help but feel that scientists have an obligation to communicate their research to nonscientists. To honor this responsibility, I have tried throughout my career to prepare myself for this critical but daunting role. I've taken media and communications training, joined Toastmasters International, and given countless research presentations to practitioners.
Unfortunately, nothing prepared me for my first press release.
This summer, for the first time in my career, a science journal wanted to write a press release about my research. I was thrilled! And then I was scared. What if a journalist actually called me? What if several journalists called me? What if they misinterpreted my science? What if I sounded like a fool?
Despite my fears, I plunged ahead. But not without making a few mistakes, waking up panicked in the middle of the night, and even issuing a call to stop the presses.
Fortunately, my story ended well. Minnesota Public Radio, the Star Tribune, KSTP, Michigan Public Radio, American Geophysical Union and others ran stories about my research. Most importantly, the coverage was scientifically sound.
It is my hope that by sharing my "lessons learned" I can help ease this first press release experience for other early-career scientists. As scary as it was to relinquish control of my science to a journalist, it was an important step in fulfilling my commitment to communicate science to the public. I can't wait to do it again!
1. Ask co-authors for advice. Get a more experienced scientist involved in the research to advise you on the press release process. More specifically, ask them to review and edit the press release. Generally, I've found that the more senior the scientist, the more wary they are of talking to the press. Don't let this discourage you, but be mindful of their advice. Most senior scientists have learned from their own battle scars as well. Their main objective will be to get the science right.
2. University communicators are there to help you. Get these communication experts involved as soon as you suspect your research may draw media attention. These people not only are trained journalists, but also work with scientists all the time. They understand how hard it can be to translate years of complicated research into a few sound bites or sentences. They truly want to help you tell your story in the most interesting, accessible and accurate way possible. They also serve as a point of contact and filter to the outside media world. Let them do their job and help you through this process.
3. Clarify your message. Before ever speaking to a journalist, write down your main message in simple language. What question did you answer with your research? What did you find? What methods did you use? What are the broader implications of your work? Answer each of these questions with bullet points or in one to two sentences only. Spend more of your time thinking about how to translate your results into simple sentences than explaining your methods. Journalists mostly want to know your punch line, not how you got there.
4. Anticipate potential extrapolations of your work. The media will push you to simplify and extrapolate your results beyond where you are comfortable. Spend time anticipating these types of questions and formulating a response beforehand. Remember, your goal is to make sure the science is accurately portrayed. The media will sensationalize whatever they can; just force them to do it within the confines of what your results actually say. I still cringe at the MPR headline about my research, "The suburbs' quiet war on CO2", but at the same time I can appreciate its superior attention-grabbing quality compared to the one I wrote, "Continuous measurements of net CO2 exchange by vegetation and soils in a suburban landscape." Even I would rather read the story about the CO2 war!
5. You can ask questions, too. If a journalist calls you, hurray! But before you answer any questions, ask them to describe their assignment. Familiarize yourself with the situation. Who do they work for? Who is their primary audience? When will the story run? In what format (blog post, printed article, radio)? How will they conduct the interview? Can they share interview questions with you ahead of time?
6. You don't have to answer a question. Politicians do it all the time, so why can't we? If you don't feel comfortable answering a question or feel a journalist is pushing you in a misleading direction, simply say, "At this time, I'm not comfortable answering that question." Then emphasize or reiterate your mains points (see #3). Keep the conversation focused on what you think are the main findings of your research.
7. Have fun! Embrace the whole process as a new learning experience in your career. It's OK to make mistakes. Who knows, you might even reach a new audience that pleasantly surprises you.
Emily Peters is a forest ecologist for the Institute on the Environment's Boreal Forest Resilience Project. Photo of Emily Peters in research mode courtesy of the author.
Used with permission from iaspmus-us
Just released by Temple University Press, anthropologist and Institute on the Environment resident fellow (and College of Liberal arts faculty member) Mark Pedelty's Ecomusicology: Rock, Folk, and the Environment examines whether music and musicians can help make the world more sustainable.
Pedelty explores obvious difficulties for environmentally conscious musicians, such as rock's need for hi-tech equipment and lots of noise, and more generally the music industry's reliance on overconsumption and stadium shows. The opening of the introduction reads, "U2 hates the planet. At least their 360° Tour made it seem that way." At the same time, he explores entrepreneurs' and musicians' innovative efforts to alleviate the environmental consequences of musicking and to promote environmental issues. A strong advocate for participant-observation ethnography, Pedelty even formed his own band, the Hypoxic Punks, to see what pitfalls and opportunities environmentalist musicians face.
Read the rest of Eric Hung's review of Ecomusicology here.
- 4 - IonE postdocs
- 400 - meters of solid elevation gain covered with rice terraces
- 70 - kilometers of karst landscape biked
- 20 - million people in Beijing
- 30 - sticks of assorted savory-spicy grilled xiaokao consumed
- 8 - micro-brewed beers sampled in a traditional Beijing neighborhood hutong
And that sums up the two weeks IonE postdoctoral fellows Brian Robinson, Jill Baumgartner, Kate Brauman and Stephen Hawley spent this summer in China.
Last spring Jill and I traveled to Beijing to collaborate with some of China's leading researchers on ecosystem services and rural energy technologies, respectively. Capitalizing on the opportunity to visit places where they have free travel guides (and dear friends!), Kate and Stephen first took in Hong Kong for a few days and then met Jill and me in Guangxi Province, home to China's famed karst landscape and some of the most amazing rice terraces one could ever imagine. Two themes ran throughout our travels: water's influence on the landscape and food.
Our first stop was the "Dragon's Back" rice terraces in northwestern Guangxi Province. This area is mountainous with narrow valleys, but water consistently flows from seemingly hidden forested watersheds above. Over time the villages in this area have transformed the mountainsides into a dizzying stack of rice terraces, with intricate but low-tech water engineering. For example, extended diversions bring water to the back side of its original drainage basin, bamboo pipes extend water to the tops of otherwise waterless hills and a complicated drainage network keeps water flushing and circulating rice paddies at just the right times. This impressive infrastructure was built over long time scales, and much ongoing effort is put forth to maintain the terraces. The view of these "thousand layers of heaven" from above was breathtaking - for me, a rare example of a human-modified landscape that still exhibits profound natural beauty.
Water was also the main architect of the next unique landscape where we spent some time - a sleepy village outside the tourist town of Yangshuo, also in Guangxi. Here the shores of the Li river and its tributaries boast one of the most iconic images of China's natural beauty. These mountains formed over time from water eating away at soft limestone, leaving one of the most famous examples of a karst landscape in the world, characterized by sinking streams, odd crater-like depressions between mountains, and mountains that rise unexpectedly from flat, silty soils. The valleys were best explored on bicycle, and on bicycle it was best to explore the valley on off-the-beaten-path farm roads. After living and working in China on and off for the past 12 years, this is one of the most memorable places I have been.
Back in Beijing, Kate and Stephen took in some of the city sites, but I think most our days - in fact, I think whole series of days - were planned around meals (as most good travel itineraries are). On the list were Beijing specialties, namely roasted duck and dumplings, and journeys into China's regional cuisines, of which Beijing has plenty to offer. I have a personal penchant for Sichuan food, so we sought out the hotel owned by the Sichuan Provincial Government - figuring their restaurant would know how to do things right. Indeed, they did.
In Beijing we are also reminded of the role of water on the landscape. Beijing gets two-thirds of its residential water from groundwater sources; in addition to facing a plummeting water table, the city is also starting to experience land subsistence (sinking) in some parts. This puts special value on more renewable surface water reservoirs, which is the subject of some of my research here with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In China blog installment #2, to follow in a few weeks, I'll talk about the challenges that face the Miyun Reservoir and emerging trends in China's approach to solve some of these problems.
Photos courtesy of Brian Robinson; Chinese translation for "Invasion of the Postdocs" courtesy of Ryan Loomis
The irony was not lost on the 300 or so environmental scientists, policy makers, activists and citizens who gathered earlier this week at the Aspen Institute for three days of solution-seeking around the theme, "Living in the New Normal." Even as participants in Aspen Environment Forum 2012 shared information, ideas and opinions, haze from the forest fires currently ravaging Colorado hung over the nearby mountains. This, more than one participant commented, is the new normal: uncertainty, extremes, unpredictability, unexpected turns of events - all brought on by humans' fiddling with the dials of nature on a grandiose scale.
Of course it's relatively easy to talk about troubles. But that's not what AEF2012 was about. The forum focused not only on defining the new normal, but also on exploring what we ought to do about it. Should we let us take it where it will? Or should we engage? Will we be tossed about like ships at sea? Or will we work to understand the changes taking shape, and shape our own activities to make both most compatible with the preservation of life on Earth?
Perhaps the best way to get a sampling of the conversations is to pull some participant quotes and paraphrases from the Twitter stream (#AEF2012):
If we continue at the present rate of eliminating species, half of them will be gone by the end of the century. - E.O. Wilson
The bulk of the credit for maintaining a planet that works goes to a living ocean. - Sylvia Earle
60,000-90,000 years ago, there may have only been 600-2,000 human beings. We were an endangered species at one time. - Richard Potts
We *have* to figure out how to close the gap - to bring environmental externalities into pricing. - Jason Clay
The past is no longer any guide for the future. This planet (w/new climate, biosphere, land use, ocean acidification) is new. - Jon Foley
Abruptness in climate change creates largely unpredictable side-effects. - William Calvin
Eating tuna is like eating something that feeds on dragons. Very high on the food chain. - Daniel Pauly
What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. - Neal Conan
If you're pro-free market and ignore biggest market failure on planet (CO2), you have a problem. - Gernot Wagner
We have the tools at our disposal to end overfishing. We should start tackling the problem now. - Miguel Jorge
Comparing block to block, house to house, there is 7% greater property value to tree lined streets. - Rohit Aggarwala
In public's eye, pollution is top ocean problem. In reality, it's #3, behind overfishing & climate change. - Ayana Johnson
When you say "climate" it turns people off because they fear they'll have to reduce their quality of life. - Heidi Cullen
Not climate change or global warming, but planetary destabilization. - David Orr
The future of America is networked resilient communities. - John Robb
Never eat shrimp: either caught with 90% bycatch net, or in mangrove-destroying aquaculture. - Ayana Johnson
We have to be careful about what we can measure and what matters - Daniel Pauly
We need to make climate an economic issue, because it is. - Mindy Lubber
The notion that our emergence occurred during the most violent period of climate fluctuation means that we're able to adapt. - Richard PottsWe need to preserve ecosystems as working systems, for us to learn from and emulate in the Anthropocene. Not keep as museum pieces. - Jon Foley
Don't fish, you have zero fish. Fish too much, you have zero fish. Sustainable fishing is in between. - Daniel Pauly
Smart growth is the greatest technology we have to fight climate change, and its not in any of the books. - Peter Calthorpe
Trawling is like using a bulldozer to catch songbirds. - Sylvia Earle
The past can no longer be a guide to the future.- Dennis Dimick
No farmer is going to invest in sustainability if they don't have land rights. - Jason Clay
Let's celebrate successes in sustainable agriculture - and scale them up. - Chris Reij
U.S. agricultural research budget has gone to hell in a handbasket. - Dan Glickman
Something that people often miss: resilience doesn't just mean strengthened rule of law, it also means stronger civil society. - Jamais Cascio
We thought the ocean was too big to fail. Now we know otherwise. - Sylvia Earle
Why should unsustainable products cost less? They should cost more because they are subsidized by nature. - Jason Clay
If there's an elephant in the room with the global food system, it's a cow. - Jon Foley
Like to learn more? Check out video of select AEF2012 panel presentations here.