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As threats to the environment continue to grow, so is people’s thirst for information about these issues. Today, perhaps more than ever, scientists and their institutions are the ones stepping up with ideas about how to meet this demand for information.
This week, thousands of oceanographers from all over the world gathered at the 2012 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Salt Lake City to discuss the latest developments in ocean science. Yet a surprising portion of that dialogue centered on communicating science through mainstream media, the internet, and social media.
Margaret Leinen, Executive Director (and oceanographer) of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, predicted that social media will actually change the scientific process itself, by enabling collaboration on a huge, unprecedented scale. She credits Michael Nielsen for furthering this change with his book, Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science.
She described one such dramatic experiment in social media, detailed in Nielsen’s book, in which a complex math problem was solved faster than anyone would have thought possible thanks to what is now known as the Polymath Project, an online collaboration of a large and decentralized group of mathematicians (both professional and amateur). And on a personal level, she commented on how quickly her colleagues seem to have adopted social media.
Blogging for Smarties
Another highlight came from Ken Kostel, a web science writer and editor at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He directed two blogs from marine research cruises, one studying the effects of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the other the 2011 Japan tsunami/Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster. The blogs incorporated personal impressions from researchers on the cruise as well as real-time data from the ship. I spoke with a graduate oceanography student who participated in the Fukushima cruise; she is now looking into a career that incorporates both science and communications.
Kostel’s Dive and Discover blog, where the Gulf spill research cruise was recorded, is geared toward students and teachers. Here, you can see that he swears by the communications principle of “show, don’t tell” and strives for compelling visual elements. He also believes in brevity, using the help of communication professionals, and a lot of advance planning.
In an interactive workshop, graduate students Miriam Goldstein of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Andrew Thaler of Duke University shared insights on running their respective science blogs, Deep Sea News and Southern Fried Science. They stressed the benefit of having a clear goal for the blog, of writing about what interests you, and the importance of maintaining a two-way conversation with readers. And naturally, they use Facebook to drive readers to their blogs.
The Gateway to the Public
With a slightly different approach, Heather Galinda spoke about what she has learned working for COMPASS,* an organization whose mission is to connect science with ocean policy-makers and the media. She’s part of a team of science communications professionals based at affiliate institutions across the U.S. She emphasized the huge role the media play in the transfer of scientific knowledge, describing them as “the gateway to the broader public” and “the gate-keepers to policy-makers.” She encourages scientists to connect with journalists through social media.
In between the flurry of presentations, Mary Scranton, a marine geochemist at Stony Brook University and a conference organizer, chatted with me about this increased emphasis on science communication at the Ocean Sciences conference. She attributes it to the public’s need for accurate information on the environmental issues that affect their lives. She also feels that there is more interest from science graduate students in pursuing careers outside of university research, such as at an aquarium, where the ability to communicate effectively to the public is a crucial skill.
Readers, what do you think? Do you want to see more science on what’s affecting the world around you? Let us know!