Avoiding the Dusty Shelf Syndrome: Making science matter for Maine communities

This piece originally appeared in the Lakes Environmental Association Summer 2011 newsletter.

Those of us in the natural resource management world all have them: the technical science reports accumulating dust on our shelves. Next time you are at LEA, check the bookshelves in Peter or Colin’s office and you are likely to find several of these reports. Pull one off the shelf, thumb through the pages and you will read jargon like, “Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)”, “internal phosphorus recycling”, and “benthic oxygen depletion.” All of these terms are useful for the scientists and managers, like Peter and Colin, who understand how these terms inform land-use decision making. But for many, these words are a barrier that may prevent us from understanding important information relevant for our lives.

In my work on the Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI) at the University of Maine, I am interested in this challenge of how to effectively communicate science. A couple of the questions I am asking include: How do scientists avoid the “Dusty Report Syndrome” and successfully communicate their research to public audiences? How do different approaches to science communication influence the ways in which people think and make decisions about science?  My research comes at a time when fostering an understanding of science is a significant challenge, as Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum describe in their book Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future.

There are a variety of reasons why public understanding of science is complicated and one of them has to do with a central feature of the scientific process: peer review. Good science is peer-reviewed and scientists, from the earliest time in their careers, are trained to write for peer audiences who critically evaluate their research for potential publication.  Peer review helps ensure science-informed decisions are based on accurate information. We need to know, for example, the phosphorus limits that are part of a Total Maximum Daily Load were derived from a robust scientific process. Peer review helps give us that confidence.

But if science communication stays stuck in the language of peer-reviewed journal and technical reports, the information necessary for broader understanding and decision making may sit on the shelves of the few people conversant in that language. This is why efforts like LEA’s decision maker training program are important to provide people with the information they need to make decisions in ways that make sense and are personally relevant. But this is also where the knowledge of science and the action of management meet. It is not enough to train planning board members in how to calculate phosphorus export and assume that once given the right information they will make decisions to support lake protection. In the same way that the choices about phosphorus export are informed by science, the choices about how to communicate science need to be informed by empirical research. Further, the outcomes of these communication efforts need to be thoroughly evaluated to ensure that program goals are met.

Many scientists spend lots of time and resources conducting their research so it will pass peer review and they spend less time finding ways to meaningfully communicate their work beyond the academic publication. Environmental organizations, like LEA, spend considerable time and resources attempting to communicate science and less time thoroughly evaluating the efficacy of these efforts. This is an opportunity to link different kinds of knowledge and action to genuinely improve public understanding of science. This is a gap I hope to help fill through my research by working with scientists and organizations in Maine communities to find ways to strengthen and expand science communication.

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