17 June 2010

Matching climate scientists and journalists

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Last December, while thousands of reporters were heading to Copenhagen to cover the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Stacy Jackson was leading an ambitious outreach project: rallying and organizing several hundred PhD climate scientists to answer journalists’ questions throughout the 12-day meeting, 24/7. A PhD candidate in near-term climate change at UC Berkeley, Jackson sees climate change as “one of the largest-scale problems that we face at a global level.” Before starting her training to become a climate researcher, Jackson worked for 13 years in corporate strategy and finance, trying to figure out solutions to large-scale problems. She recently took the time to explain to “The Plainspoken Scientist” how her Copenhagen outreach project, dubbed the Copenhagen Q&A, was meant to help improve public understanding of climate science.

How was the idea for the Q&A service born?

One of the ways to get to the public is through the media. The historical model, which consists of the most prominent scientists being the ones who talk to journalists, just doesn’t scale to the segments of media that we have today. It’s of great importance for a much larger number of scientists to be available to interact with the media at all levels, so that the burden doesn’t fall to the couple of dozen people at the top. As we were coming up on Copenhagen, we knew that there were going to be reporter numbers in the thousands and many of them would not have covered climate before (or would have covered it minimally). There was no way that all those reporters were going to get personal time with a couple of dozen leading experts. We were trying to provide a solution so that all reporters would have access to solid scientific knowledge.

Do you think that what’s missing from the climate change debate is having more accurate scientific data? Or, do other issues matter more, such as people’s beliefs or a resistance to give up on a certain way of life?

There are many things involved in the public’s perceptions. I think accurate information is an essential foundation, and without it nothing else really matters, because if you don’t have it you can’t really assess, you can’t really form your own opinions about different policies or different perspectives that are being thrown at you.

Once AGU got on board with your project and you asked for volunteers, what kind of response did you get?

My mailbox was quickly flooded with about 700 emails. This was just an amazing experience –  it was so exciting to recognize the energy within the community to contribute to this type of initiative. To select the volunteers, we only used two criteria: one was that people had PhD-level training, because we wanted to be able to assure the journalists that they were getting answers from experts. And the second was that their training had to be in the climate field.

What about the volunteers who were students?

They participated in the support team and helped out with managing the daily staffing of the back end of the system during the [Copenhagen] negotiations.

How did the Q&A service work?

For the 12 days of negotiations, we had people signed up for 2-hour shifts and we had 6 scientists for each 2-hour shift. The scientists logged into a shared email inbox and within this email tool, the scientists were able to write notes and collaborate with each other, because some of the questions spanned multiple disciplines. Journalists sent emails to a standard email address, and knew there was a pool of experts waiting to answer their questions. Whoever wrote the response put their name, title and affiliation at the bottom of email so the journalist would know who they were getting an answer from. A lot of times, the reporter would get answers from a couple of different people, covering different parts of the question. The turnaround was very fast, many times within the shift. The questions were always answered within 24 hours.

What kind of media training did the scientists get before Copenhagen?

We made available on the project’s website a variety of existing [media training] materials developed by AGU, AAAS, Columbia University, UC Berkeley, etc. We encouraged people to visit that part of the project website. In the survey, we found that many people did.

We also gave people training on how to use the email tool: we had a couple of tutorial videos and written materials. In the end, it turned out that a third of the people learned how to use the inbox by trial and error, a third by the video training, and a third by the written materials.

Did you get any questions beyond the training?

We definitely had people asking “so, can you tell us the questions in advance?” And of course, we couldn’t, because journalists come up with the questions in real time.

How did participants like the experience?

After Copenhagen, we surveyed the journalists who had used the service, the scientists who had participated, and the support team. The most remarkable result was that half of the participating journalists responded to the survey, and all of them gave the service a 7 out of 7 in whether we should do it again.

We got equally positive results from scientists. Referring to what motivated them to sign up, over 90 percent said it was the desire to improve accuracy of climate science reporting. About two thirds answered with a 6 or 7 on whether we should offer the service again. Also, we got lots of suggestions on how to improve the service: There was definitely interest in having some more communication training.

What has this experience taught you about science communication?

The basic thing I’ve learned is that there is this pool of untapped energy within the climate science community to help get information to the public. This speaks very well for the community and to the possibilities of what we can achieve moving forward.

The questions [from journalists] were enormously varied – I don’t think anybody ever asked the same question twice. That validates the fact that you need somewhat customized answers because people have their own questions that are often unique to what they’re trying to learn.

So what’s next?

The next thing we’re going to provide is a referral service. The Copenhagen Q&A service offered journalists a shared email response [from a group of climate scientists], and we recognize that sometimes journalists just want one expert to call and interview. So we want to broaden the pool of scientists who are available for those types of requests. And we also want to create awareness among journalists that there’s this pool of scientists who are willing and able to talk with them. We launched the AGU Scientist Referral Service this week, and we’re calling on climate scientists to participate in it. So basically, when a journalist wants an expert to talk to, they can contact [AGU Public Information Manager] Peter Weiss, and Peter will match them up with an expert who can cover the area of expertise that the journalist needs. Initially, this will be available to the media only, but we are also considering making it available to teachers and legislative staff in the future.

How do you combine all these outreach efforts with your research?

[Laugh] Well, it’s… boy, time management I suppose. In November and December, the Q&A service was a fairly all-consuming project, and I must say that my research took a bit of a delay in the 6 weeks surrounding the Copenhagen meeting. But aside from that, I really view this as one of several important projects I’m working on and just manage it as such. It’s a part of my job, if you will, that’s how I think about it.

Why do you consider it as part of your job? Some scientists see outreach as a burden.

The reason I changed fields was to figure out how to find solutions to the climate challenges we face. I kind of see my mission as understanding the science myself and figuring out what our best options are to address the challenge, while also making sure that the public’s understanding is solid – so that whatever conclusions the expert community comes to about what needs to be done are intuitively understood by the public so we can all move forward constructively.


To learn more about the Copenhagen Q&A:



If you are a journalist or a PhD climate scientist who wishes to learn more about the AGU Scientist Referral Service, please contact AGU Public Information Manager Peter Weiss at [email protected]

— Maria-José Viñas, AGU science writer