USGS Hydrologist Shares Insights About Science Communication at the Council of Science Editors Annual Meeting
"Working toward a sustainable, equitable world" was the theme of the 2006 Annual Meeting for the Council of Science Editors. This conference for science journalists and editors had its Tampa, Fla., debut at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, May 19-23.
Originally scheduled for New Orleans, the 5-day event offered presentations from "renowned and expert speakers," including local U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) hydrologist, Ann Tihansky, who runs science communications at the Florida Integrated Science Center (FISC) office in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Tihansky, accompanied by Ron Winslow, deputy editor of health and science for the Wall Street Journal, spoke to a room of mainly medical journalists from such publications as The Lancet.
The focus of the seminar was "Communicating Science to Nonscientists: How Can Writers and Editors Improve the Public's Access to Scientific Information?"
Winslow, who spoke mainly about medical issues, spurred debate within the conference when he pointed out that economics is an integral aspect of medical science, owing to the marketable value of drugs and treatments.
Tihansky then gave her insight into the difference between the medical and environmental forums, pointing out that environmental scientists often "do not have the same level of resources that commercial bodies, like pharmaceutical companies, have to take their stories forward."
"But there is an economic side to environmental management," said Tihansky. This past year provided striking examples of how natural hazards and resource-management decisions have economic implications for investment, insurance, and real-estate values. "Coastal-zone hazards and water quality are two issues that come to mind immediately."
Tihansky, whose work includes producing USGS multimedia for communicating scientific issues to the public, spoke about her current projects and how she uses USGS resources to convey the organization's research to the community.
Tihansky wants to improve scientific literacy within the general public. "As a society, we need the general public to be more educated on scientific issues." She highlighted this when she asked the audience of scientific journalists, "Who knows the meaning of the word ‘karst'?" Only one person in a room of 25 had heard of the word.
Tihansky told them, "It's the word used to describe a landscape formed when the underlying bedrock [often limestone] dissolves. It's characterized by springs, sinkholes, and caves, which often create conditions that increase ground-water vulnerability to contamination. This is crucially important to understanding the hydrology in Florida and elsewhere; if you don't understand karst, you cannot understand many of Florida's resource issues."
While addressing the attendees, Penny Hodgson, director of communications at Duke Clinical Research Institute and moderator of the presentation, complimented Tihansky on her ability to capture the public's interest with scientific stories. Hodgson was referring in particular to a story Tihansky told about a dye-tracer test conducted by USGS scientists studying aquifer vulnerability in South Florida. The water intake at a local cheese-making factory was apparently receiving ground water that contained significant concentrations of the nontoxic dye. The water turned the cheese pink and caught everyone's attention.
Hodgson said that the medical community could learn from this method of communicative style, which is common in environmental sciences, because it seems to be more accessible to the layperson than does the highly technical medical style.
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Council of Science Editors Annual Meeting