From: Ellen Prager, PhD
Published January 3, 2006 12:00 AM

Science and the Environment: The Challenges of Reaching the Public

The call to bring more science more effectively to the public has grown significantly louder and broader over the past several years. Congress has called upon the federal agencies to provide the public with better and more of the information they receive funds to produce. Universities are increasingly trying to get the results of their research to the public to bring attention to their programs and meet their growing needs. Industry and non-profits are scurrying to promote their own data products and environmental news to win contracts and new supporters. And with a better-informed public, we all hope for a citizenry that makes wiser decisions, personal choices, and that will back candidates and policies that provide for the investment in and protection of the environment.


But alas, we face major obstacles in public outreach both within the scientific community and outside of its bounds.


Within the scientific community we have a poor history of making science relevant, understandable, and yes, even entertaining, to the public. Yet from fisheries declines, climate change to coastal hazards, science and the environment are highly relevant to everyday life. These issues increasingly impact the economy, jobs, public health and safety and our very quality of life—the things most people care about. But as scientists this is not how we typically frame or discuss our results. And all too often our passion for the science involved bogs us down in technical details that the public does not care about or may not understand. Furthermore, within the scientific community there remains little financial incentive or merit value in doing public outreach. This is especially true when focusing on wider, universal issues rather than on the promotion of a specific research program or organizational mission.


The challenges outside the scientific community are no less daunting. Most people today get their news and information from television with a growing Internet base and declining print audience. With the exception of natural disasters, science in the mainstream media outlets takes a backseat to politics, security issues, health, movie releases, fad diets, and even celebrity scandals. While most networks have legal, military and health consultants none have earth or environmental analysts. And when natural disasters strike, coverage consists mostly of dramatic scenery combined with journalists muddling their way through the related science or scrambling to interview someone they’ve identified as an expert via google.


The media’s gatekeepers—those who control what goes on air or in print—don’t believe the public is interested in the environment. They do not recognize the relevancy of earth or ocean science and issues to everyday life (the economy, health, jobs, etc) or that they can be made interesting, informative ”“ and attract viewers. Of course, reiterating, it is not entirely their fault, we have not helped ourselves along these lines.


In truth, the public is interested. A recent survey suggests Hurricane Katrina was the most watched topic in 2005 and natural disaster based mini series such as CBS’s 2002 Category 6: Day of Destruction drew 19.4 million viewers and NBC’s 200410.5 wooed 20 million viewers. Okay, so maybe the science involved was dubious, but the ability to attract viewers remains.


We can espouse all we want about the need for improved public outreach of science and the environment, but until we convince the media gatekeepers of its relevancy and entertainment value (the public is interested), invest in doing it better, and enhance its value within the scientific community, our progress will be slow at best.


Dr. Ellen Prager is a marine scientist and author; comments or questions can be sent to her at eprager@earth2ocean.net.



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