Thursday, June 30, 2011

Making science matter

Recently, I found myself eavesdropping on two elderly fellows debating an age-old question: does size matter? Yes! declared one. Small ones have never satisfied anyone. It needs to be big!

You’ve got it all wrong, countered the other. Proper use of a small one can be just as good as having a big one. And what good is a big one if you don’t use it properly?

In a nearby lecture theatre the Costa-Rican Mermaid was preaching the power of long distance swimming to promote big ones. Down the hall, Barack Obama and David Cameron’s big ones were applauded while Stephen Harper’s small one was jeered.

They were all speaking, of course, of marine protected areas (get your mind out of the gutter) at last month’s Second International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC2) in Victoria, BC. This year’s edition of IMCC was located rather conveniently near where I now live on Vancouver Island.

Like everyone else in attendance, the two old academics were attempting to communicate an idea, an opinion, orseemingly too often at this conferencea cry for political sanity. Whether it was an activist, government scientist, graduate student, or academic, all of the nearly 2000 conference participants all wrestled with the same issue—being able to make a compelling case that fellow scientists and the general public are willing to listen to. To make marine science matter (which incidentally, was the theme of IMCC2) … a surprisingly difficult task in in an age of information overload and distraction. Also, bad news in a time global marine decline.
And despite what I feel was a small piece of comic genius…

…my own presentation didn’t deviate from the standard presentation format. And for my first time ‘round, I’m perfectly fine with that. I now have an appreciation of variety of ways we can effectively engage each other and the public. And engage we must.

Luckily the folks from Google and NAMPAN were on hand with some neat tools that I think will help scientists and the public to interact in ways that are accessible, visually appealing and have the power to convey powerful messages and communicate the scale of current marine ecosystem decline.

-Google ran daily seminars on integrating marine research findings into the google earth/ocean platform to communicate marine issues. The seminars played to packed crowds. With marine spatial planning a key component of most presentations, I have a feeling that google earth might change the way marine spatial planners communicate with the public.

-NAMPAN (North American Marine Protected Areas Network - one of the products of NAFTA), also brought along some fantastic tools. In addition to having some of their own nifty maps and interactive tools, NAMPAN presented a process for creating easy to understand ecological report cards that are based on clearly defined criteria. The annual report card on the status of Chesapeake Bay has become such a success that it now runs on the front page of the Washington Post every New Year’s Day and has become a call to arms amongst the general public and local decision makers.

As visual creatures, these tools will allow NGOs, grad students, etc. to stand alongside the most seasoned academics and government scientists and tell compelling and visually appealing stories to not just the scientific community, but also to non-scientists. Making the science matter. When it comes to marine science, this move away from typical, jargon dense and technical presentations is an absolute necessity (the worst offender at IMCC2 used text dense slides to suggest “an adaptive multi-scalable interdisciplinary framework approach” which uses a new “knowledge system” and “theoretical construct” to create “resilience in place” and a “way to move forward”). Much of the work in the marine conservation field stretches far beyond that of the scientific community and often has both social and ecological consequences. Having the tools to start communicating findings to a diverse audience is a step in right direction. An informed public is more likely to demand more from decision makers and is likely to become involved in things like citizen science.

At IMCC2 I attended a day long pre-conference workshop on marine citizen science a powerful tool for not only engaging the public (school kids, fishermen, hikers, retirees, divers, etc.) but to also generate high volumes of low cost observational data. Despite some logistical challenges, the programs have been highly successful, creating long term, information rich datasets. In addition to the audience reached by typical scientific publications, the audience reached by of word of mouth from the citizen scientists who collected the data was vast and engaged communities… making marine science matter to non-scientists.

In a recent post, Karl wrote on the social benefits of conservation and the value of evaluating the successes and failures of conservation initiatives. One of the sources of failure cited in several conservation projects in Tallis et al. (2008) was a lack of communication infrastructure. Successful projects, on the other hand, informed the public of they were doing and why conservation mattered, backing it up with sound science.

During my time in the Cottenie Lab I spent a lot of time grappling with how scientists choose to communicate and engage with the public. As I move to the next stage in my post-undergrad career I have a feeling that this type of communication will become a central theme. Beginning this August I’ll be starting a seven month internship with the Coady Institute. I’m heading down to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to help facilitate the creation of a network of marine protected areas. I’ll be working with scientists, governments and communities to create a stable transition to alternative income sources and to track biological change in protected areas. A large part of the project will entail communicating that marine reserves are effective and the economic benefits of restoring ecosystem services are worth it. In other words, (you guessed it) making the science matter.