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USGS and University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, Bring Scientists and the Media Together for Conversations About Impacts of Sea-level Rise

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Scientists and the Media Conversations

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the University of South Florida (USF), St. Petersburg, brought together scientists and journalists on February 6, 2008, to discuss ways of effectively communicating the complexities in the changing world of science. More than 75 participants from around the country met at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies for the first "Scientists and the Media Conversations" conference.

In an often-adversarial relationship, scientists and journalists have found clear communication challenging at times. "Scientists sometimes feel misquoted or that their thoughts have been taken out of context by reporters, while journalists may think scientists do not divulge enough information," said Mark Walters, USF St. Petersburg journalism professor, veterinarian, and co-coordinator of the conference. "So, I was thinking, wouldn't it be a neat idea to get these two camps together and discuss issues in a practical way and find some ways for them to communicate better."

 Mark Walters, Chris D'Elia, Hannah Hamilton, Robert Bazell, Catherine Puckett, A.B. Wade, Barry Rosen, Robert Costanza, and Andy Reich
Above: NBC chief science and health correspondent Robert Bazell kicked off the "Scientists and the Media Conversations" conference by sharing anecdotes and personal experiences about finding out what it takes to tell science stories. Left to right: journalism professor Mark Walters, environmental science and policy professor Chris D'Elia, USGS communications officer Hannah Hamilton, Bazell, USGS communications officer Catherine Puckett, USGS communications officer A.B. Wade, USGS Florida Integrated Science Center director Barry Rosen, ecological economics professor Robert Costanza, and Florida Department of Health program coordinator Andy Reich. Photograph by Ann Tihansky. [larger version]

The topic of interest was the potential impact of global warming and sea-level rise on Florida's ecology, economy, freshwater supply, and public health. With water all around and a densely populated low-lying coast, Florida is one of the most vulnerable areas on the planet to rising sea level. A projected 1-m rise by the end of the century would drastically alter present coastal ecology, resulting in extensive saltwater intrusion of freshwater aquifers and flooding of city centers.

Rather than following a lecture format, the conference created an atmosphere conducive to the intimate exchange of ideas, discussions, and conversations to integrate the two professions. "We built this conference around conversations," said Walters. "We had a stage and had four conversations, each involving a scientist, a journalist, and a moderator. In this way, speakers could talk about some of the issues on a personal level."

Each conversation addressed one of four areas likely to be affected by sea-level rise in Florida: its ecology, economy, freshwater, and public health. Although the focus of the conference was on the impacts of sea-level rise, the organizers hoped the meeting would help raise awareness of ways to communicate all kinds of scientific topics effectively to the public.

Brent Yarnel, Gary Lytton, Craig Pittman
Gary Lytton Ecological Impacts: Communicating to raise awareness and engage the decision-makers of tomorrow
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Gary Lytton Ecological Impacts: Communicating to educate leadership and cultivate responsible policy change
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Brent Yarnel, Gary Lytton, Craig Pittman Ecological Impacts: Communicating with concrete examples, sound science, and societal implications
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Above left: Panelists on ecological impacts—(left to right) moderator Brent Yarnel, scientist Gary Lytton, and journalist Craig Pittman—pause for a photograph before exchanging ideas about the ecological impacts of climate change and sea-level rise on Florida and how this issue is reported in the media. Photograph by Ann Tihansky.

"Such communication is critical because, as a society, we are facing a number of difficult challenges in terms of energy, water resources, and threats to public health," said Ann Tihansky, science communicator at the USGS and co-coordinator of the conference. "Scientists are the people working on those problems, but they are generally not policy makers. The policy makers are representatives of the public, and in our democratic society we need to put the scientific ideas forward to help policy makers make informed decisions about what we are going to do in the future."

Living in a technologically advanced society and with uncertainty about the future of resources, energy, and climate, the general public must be able to understand scientific processes and ideas. Better explanation and collaboration between scientists and journalists is critical for this understanding.

Robert Costanza and Daniel Grossman
Slide from Economic Impacts talk Economic Impacts: Communicating by using graphics and models to help illustrate complex systems and concepts
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Robert Costanza and Daniel Grossman Economic Impacts: Communicating by using new terms, redefining conventional models
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Above right: Panelists on economic impacts—scientist Robert Costanza (left) and journalist Daniel Grossman—discuss the importance of understanding the economic value of ecological systems in order to effectively communicate science to the public and policy makers. Photograph by Ann Tihansky.

"I thought the conference was great because it presented an opportunity for scientists and journalists to have a dialogue with each other," said Robert Costanza, professor of ecological economics at the University of Vermont. "There aren't enough of these opportunities around to have a constructive dialogue that moves beyond argument and black-and-white answers."

A grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to USF's Center for Science & Policy Applications for the Coastal Environment (C-SPACE) supported the conference, with the help of ecologist Chris D'Elia, codirector of C-SPACE, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs for research and graduate studies, and professor of environmental science, policy, and geography at USF St. Petersburg.

Kimberly Taylor, Rob Lorei, and Cynthia Barnett
Kimberly Taylor Freshwater Impacts: Communicating about trends and implications—"I need a lead"
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Cynthia Barnett Freshwater Impacts: Communicating about uncertainty—confusing readers and emboldening skeptics
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Above left: Panelists on freshwater impacts—(left to right) scientist Kimberly Taylor, moderator Rob Lorei, and journalist Cynthia Barnett—prepare for their conversation on Florida's freshwater resources in the face of rising sea level. Photograph by Ann Tihansky.

Speakers for the event included NBC chief science and health correspondent Robert Bazell, author Cynthia Barnett, ecological economics professor Costanza, radio producer and author Daniel Grossman, USF professor of geological oceanography Albert Hine, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve director Gary Lytton, St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman, Florida Department of Health program coordinator Andy Reich, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve coastal training coordinator Tabitha Stadler, USGS California Water Science Center program officer Kimberly Taylor, and journalism professor Walters.

Rob Lorei, Andy Reich, and Mark Walters
Andy Reich Public Health Impacts: Communicating efficiently, responsibly, and with sensitivity with issues that evoke strong public response
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Mark Walters Public Health Impacts: Communicating by understanding both the journalistic and scientific methods
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Rob Lorei, Andy Reich, and Mark Walters Public Health Impacts: Communicating by verifying and collaborating
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Above left: Panelists on public-health impacts—(left to right) moderator Rob Lorei, scientist Andy Reich, and journalism professor Mark Walters—explain effective ways of communicating the possible public-health impacts of a changing world to an audience of journalists and scientists. Photograph by Ann Tihansky.

Participants responded to the conference enthusiastically. In particular, they cited the importance of having this dialogue and the significance of the practical knowledge and ideas shared during the conversations. Many increased their understanding of the communication challenges that exist between scientists and the media, and believed the conference would help bridge the gap between these two groups. Many also cited the practical applications to their professions of the communication skills attained. Organizers are hoping to continue holding these discussions in the coming years to build upon the foundations laid here and to cultivate better relationships between scientists and journalists.

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About the author: Article author Matthew Cimitile holds a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Tampa and is obtaining a master's degree in environmental journalism from Michigan State University. He spent part of summer 2008 gaining experience in science communications by working with Ann Tihansky in the USGS Florida Integrated Science Center office in St. Petersburg.

Related Web Sites
Global Climate Change and Sea-Level Rise in Florida A Conversation Between Scientists and the Media
Science and the Media

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cover story:
Corals, Habitats, and Paleoclimate in the Drake Passage

Scientists and the Media: Impacts of Sea-level Rise

USGS NWRC Celebrates National Women's History Month

USGS Promoted at National Science Teachers Association Conference

Meetings Field Trip for Association of American Geographers Meeting

USGS Modeling Conference

Publications New Poster Depicts Complex Bathymetry in Northern Monterey Bay

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