Climate Change and Implications for the Pacific NW: Experiences in Communication and Engagement — a discussion with WA State Climatologist Dr. Nicholas Bond

Posted: March 7, 2013 in Events, Science, Science Communication

Washington State Climatologist Nicholas Bond, Ph.D. came to University of Washington (UW) on Wednesday to discuss his experiences in communicating climate change and its implications for the Pacific Northwest in and around Washington State. I very much enjoyed the candid discussion the group of about 35 FOSEP and non-FOSEP members had pertaining to science communication, and left feeling encouraged to have a scientist and communicator of Dr. Bond’s caliber as our State Climatologist.

Dr. Bond received his Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences from University of Washington. He is currently a senior research scientist with the Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) and an affiliate associate professor with the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at UW. His role as the Washington State Climatologist is to “collect, disseminate, and interpret climate data”. In addition to his active research program, he spends a large portion of his time traveling around Washington State, speaking with and giving talks to the general public regarding climate change.

Dr. Bond started the night by giving us a quick run through of a TED-style presentation he gave during the Pacific Science Center’s Seattle Science Festival Climate Change Conversations. The presentation began with a quick explanation of how he became interested in climate (grew up in California during the severe 1976-77 drought, which was followed by a massive flood), then explained the basic science behind climate change and climate change modeling, and ended with explanations of what the climate change models are predicting for the Pacific Northwest (8-10 degree F increase in temperature by 2090; wetter winters and dryer summers, with decreasing snowpack each year; a gradual warming of ocean temperatures that will have profound and negative effects on marine ecosystems, including salmon and shellfish).

This short presentation then served as the basis for the group discussion that continued for about the next hour. Dr. Bond had us focus on four main questions: 1) Should stories be used when communicating science? 2) How much detail should you go into when communicating science, what scope should you cover? 3) How much actual scientific data should you present? and 4) What is the role of scientists in advocacy work? Audience members offered advice and suggestions and shared their own personal experiences communicating science to various audiences. I really appreciated the openness that Dr. Bond came with as he listened to attendees’ experiences and suggestions for effectively communicating science. While the discussion focused on communicating climate change science, much of the topics discussed and advice presented also applies to many other scientific fields.

The consensus of the discussion group was that stories are appropriate for certain audience groups. You wouldn’t necessarily want to give your life story and how you became interested in research at a scientific meeting, but when presenting to a more general audience, adding in stories can potentially help you relate to your audience members and appear more accessible. Dr. Bond also showed us a handout that he gives audience members at many of his talks. The handout requires the audience to split up into small groups and discuss climate change causes and implications, and in this way engages the audience member in the conversation.

The issue of how much detail and scientific data to present also seemed to be audience dependent. When speaking with the general public, it was suggested by group members to use details and data to help the audience members connect with the science and implications of the research. Stories can also facilitate this goal. For Example, if you are giving a talk to farmers in Eastern Washington, focus on how climate change will affect their crop yields and irrigation abilities. There was some disagreement between the group as to whether one should use a graph vs. a picture, but the eventual consensus seemed to be that if you do choose to use graphs, make sure to explain each component of the graph and use it engage the audience in learning about science instead of alienating them with difficult to understand terminology.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to focus on the role of scientists in advocacy, but based on Dr. Bond’s position as the State Climatologist, I would posit that he at least supports scientists acting as communicators and ambassadors for science. I, and FOSEP greatly appreciate having him come speak with us, and due to the wide range of topics and suggestions discussed by the group, hopefully the event provided all attendees with some new tips and ideas for more effectively communicating science. By sharing his experiences communicating science and facilitating a discussion on the topic, Dr. Bond has really gone full circle when it comes to science outreach, because not only does he engage with the general public on climate change, he also helps other scientists hone their own science communication skills.

The Forum on Science Ethics and Policy (FOSEP) “promotes multidisciplinary interaction among scholars in Seattle about complex science and policy issues and increases awareness among scientists for how scientific and non-scientific knowledge affects society as a whole. Through seminars, discussion groups, public forums and social media on the web, we foster the development of citizen-scientists who can participate effectively in civic dialogue about science. FOSEP provides unique leadership opportunities for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows within the University of Washington community and partner institutions and prepares emerging leaders to better communicate advances in science and technology.”

The Office of Washington State Climatologist (OWSC) is “called by the State of Washington to serve as a credible and expert source of climate and weather information for state and local decision makers and agencies working on drought, flooding, climate change, and other related issues. When interpreting climate information or analysis, OWSC will rely foremost on peer-reviewed literature and on best practices, sometimes consulting with other experts as needed, and is willing to revise public statements in light of solid new analysis or information. Our on-going goal is to provide information to the public that is reliable and meets the highest quality standards.”

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