March 13, 2018

A conversation about science communication with NOAA’s RDML Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D.

Posted by Laura Guertin

On March 5, 2018, I had the honor and privilege of visiting the office of RDML Tim Gallaudet, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. I blogged about Dr. Gallaudet’s portion of the federal agency panel at the 2017 AGU Fall Meeting (see post). Dr. Gallaudet read that post and invited me to stop by his office my next time in DC so he could thank me for blogging about NOAA. I couldn’t pass up the invitation and opportunity to speak with him.

Dr. Gallaudet shared that he recently returned from the March 1st press conference and launch of GOES-S (now GOES-17, as GOES satellites are designated with a letter prior to launch and a number once they achieve geostationary orbit). He only had two minutes to speak at the press conference, and instead of focusing his speech on the “bells and whistles” of the satellite, he took a different approach. Dr. Gallaudet started by taking the audience on a journey, to have them think about how this satellite has been built since the Industrial Age, and the role and development of mechanical engineering, and the importance of GOES-S for the economy and national security… I wish there was a recording of Dr. Gallaudet’s speech to hear him describe this journey of the development of satellites and technology, as well as their importance to modern-day society.

What did Dr. Gallaudet want as the outcome of his speech, as well as the overall launch? He knows that this was a NASA launch… but with a NOAA satellite. This is the message getting lost in communications about GOES-S. Many of my friends and colleagues that I’ve spoken to since the launch unfortunately confirmed Dr. Gallaudet’s concern – everyone says this was a NASA event but had no idea that NOAA played a part, that NOAA was the cargo.

We then shifted to the ability and desire (if not “need”) for scientists to be able to tell stories. Dr. Gallaudet talked about the first time he read the beginning of Matthew Fontaine Maury’s book, The Physical Geography of the Sea (1855). Credited with being the father of oceanography, Maury had a way with words to draw in the 19th century reader fascinated by the mystery of the ocean. I was able to find Maury’s words online, the start of his story of the ocean:

(Screenshot of Chapter 1 first page from

We wrapped up the conversation revisiting Dr. Gallaudet’s mission to get the word out about NOAA, and how he wants people to know NOAA as well as NASA. Do we need more writing in the style of Matthew Fontaine Maury? Do we need more informal talks about NOAA at events such as Nerd Nite and Taste of Science? (something else we spoke about – events where I have spoken about NOAA and hydrographic surveying) Green et al. (2018) is a recent paper that focuses on the need to tell stories when communicating science, and Alan Alda has published a book that focuses on elements of listening vital for science communication (blog post by Lou Woodley). Clearly, there are many ingredients necessary to telling the stories of NOAA – and all are part of Dr. Gallaudet’s toolkit. I look forward to hearing more and contributing to these NOAA stories.