February 27, 2019

Communicating Science

Posted by AGU Career Center

Popular television shows such as The Big Bang Theory and Bill Nye, the Science Guy have made science a popular mainstream topic.  However, science still encounters skepticism which could be due to the difficult nature of explaining science on a basic level.   One of the jobs I’m tasked with as the Chief of Staff for the Water Resources Mission Area (WMA) at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is figuring out how to successfully communicate our science.

Since its establishment in 1879, the USGS has been a primary source for scientific data to describe and understand Earth systems and provide assessments to facilitate the management of the nation’s resources. I was hired at the USGS in 2006 without having a science degree or job experience in a science field.  I used to think that not having a science degree was a disadvantage because I was not able to understand all the science that I was responsible for communicating.  However, my first congressional briefing with staff who did not have any knowledge of the USGS helped me realize that not having a science degree was really a strength. If I do not understand the information, it is likely that others I’m communicating with outside the USGS may not understand it as well.  Therefore, I needed to change my tactic to make sure the importance of our science is easily explained and understandable to all types of people.

In September 2016, I began my current position as the USGS WMA Chief of Staff. The WMA has approximately 3,500 employees located in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, and Guam.  However, much of the public is not familiar with the WMA or even the USGS.  Did you know that the WMA provides reliable, impartial, timely information that needed to understand the nation’s water resources? One way this is done is through our streamgages.  The WMA supports the collection and/or delivery of both streamflow and water-level information for more than 8,500 sites (continuous or partial record) and water-level information alone for more than 1,700 additional sites. The data are served online—most in near real-time.  Did you know that this data is vital to the National Weather Service and their flood forecasting? My guess is most people do not.  The constant question I’m striving to find the answer to is how does the WMA make data sexy to the general public?

Social media is a great way to provide information to the public. One fun way I am trying to communicate our science is through the USGS streamgages Instagram account (@usgs_streamgages). I post weekly photos and information about various streamgages from across the United States. Another unique way to communicate our science is the USGS Texas Water Science Center flooding twitter feed (@USGS_TexasFlood). This twitter feed is an autonomous twitter feed of 290 of the USGS Texas Water Science Center’s real-time streamgages that have flood state as define by the National Weather Service.  The twitter feeds delivers river stage/discharge data for sites above the flood stage.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please send them my way!

Adrienne Bartlewitz, Chief of Staff of the Water Resources Mission Area, U.S. Geological Survey