30 March 2010

A whale of an opportunity: My moment in the media spotlight

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Guest post: Andrew Pershing, Assistant Professor in the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences and a Research Scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute , on his first press conference experience.

Andrew Pershing during his press conference at the 2010 Ocean Sciences meeting.

Like many professional scientists, I’m troubled by the number of people who don’t understand the scientific process and are willing to accept non-scientific explanations such as intelligent design for natural phenomena.  I feel very strongly that scientists need to work harder to communicate to non-scientists what we do and how we do it.  Finding the right way to do this, given the constraints of writing papers and proposals, doing research, and teaching, is a challenge.

At last month’s AGU/ASLO/TOS Ocean Sciences meeting, I was invited to give a regular science talk in a session on the impact of climate change on marine ecosystems.   For the last several years, I’ve been thinking about what role big animals like whales and tuna play in the ocean’s carbon cycle.  This work is a bit of a departure from my main research, but I’d put a lot of my own time into it and was pretty excited about it.

I needed some motivation to get my ideas together, and I also wanted to get a sense for whether other scientists thought my work was interesting or if there was a fatal flaw I was overlooking.  To this end, I submitted a title called “The Impact of Climate Change on Whales (and Vice Versa)” and inserted into the abstract a quote about how whaling was equivalent to deforesting “much of New England.” (For information on the actual science, please see my lab blog)

A couple of weeks before the meeting, I received an email from AGU’s Public Information group asking if I’d like to give a press conference on my work.  I’m not one to shy away from attention, but this request made me very nervous. Deciding what to present at meetings is always a challenge–do you present the rock-solid, polished stuff, at the risk of boring the folks in the audience who have heard it before, or do you present the new, slightly undercooked stuff even though it might not be ready for primetime?  Normally, I shoot for somewhere in between, but this year, I went strongly towards the latter. Given that I hadn’t presented my work in front of a scientific audience, let alone subjected it to formal peer-review, I had nightmares about a cold fusion-like debacle.

My other concern was how the scientific community (including editors and reviewers) would view a paper that had already received some media attention.  After some serious thinking, I decided to go for it. Although public outreach is not a formal part of my position, my lab is based at an institution with a strong public outreach mission.  I felt like I would be giving up an opportunity to contribute to these efforts.

Victoria Gill (BBC) interviews Andrew Pershing after his press conference.

To prepare, I organized a mock press conference, with my colleagues—scientists and others— acting as journalists.  This was extremely helpful, and the questions from the non-scientists in the group (some of whom seem to be harboring Woodward and Bernstein fantasies) were especially valuable.  At the press conference, I spoke for about 15 minutes, then took questions from reporters in the room and a few who called in by phone to the press conference.  I then spoke with several reporters one-on-one.

The press conference was a lot of fun, and AGU did a great job making it run smoothly.  I was very impressed by the quality of the questions I received.  I then gave my regular science talk (no major criticisms, at least not yet).

By 11PM that night, the BBC reporter had filed her story, and by the next day, it had been translated into Hungarian, Slovenian, Italian, Norwegian, German, Portuguese, Swedish, and Vietnamese.  The reach of the BBC is truly inspiring.  Several other stories came out, and I was asked to appear on two CBC radio programs (still waiting for Jon Stewart to call).  The highlight, however, was having the editor of climategate.com suggest that the State of Maine investigate me.  I guess we still have some work to do.

— Andrew Pershing, University of Maine and Gulf of Maine Research Institute