29 November 2010

Getting the word out: Helping scientists engage with the media

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Guest post by Jeff Taylor, postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and project manager of AGU’s Climate Q&A Service .

Jeff Taylor

More than 700 AGU scientists have volunteered to take part in this year’s Climate Q&A Service which was created to quickly provide answers to questions about climate change that journalists might have. It was launched last year just before the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP15), and is being ramped up again in anticipation of the 10-day UN conference in Cancun, Mexico this week.

The service takes climate science questions from the media and quickly provides email responses from scientific experts. Last year, an abbreviated pilot version of the Q&A Service was offered for 10 days during COP15. During this time, they received more than 50 questions from 27 different media outlets. We hope to double that this year.

So far, we’ve had some great questions from all kinds of different media outlets around the world, including National Geographic and Newsweek. Questions range from broad climate inquires like “How can you rule out natural variability for long term warming given that today’s temperatures are historically unexceptional?” to more detailed technical questions, such as “How can anyone calculate global average temperature – how can observations be made over the oceans that comprise over 70% of the Earth’s surface?” We also get many requests for interviews from outlets like the Los Angeles Times and Science magazine. Luckily, AGU’s public information office has been very helpful in fielding interviews, allowing me to focus primarily on getting the service running.

As the service’s project manager, I have to ensure that all schedules, emails, and technical problems are quickly dealt with so that there are no delays in getting an answer back to a journalist with a tight deadline. Of course, in the best interests of science and peer-review, I also want to ensure that every response is checked by at least two scientists. I often find myself saying “hurry up and write a response… just make sure it’s perfect”.

I enjoy communicating science because it helps remove the barrier that can exist between scientists and the general public. My current research focuses on the interaction between cirrus clouds and temperature in the upper troposphere but I still make communicating science a priority – I’ve even had traveled to some of the northernmost communities in the world and discuss climate science with Inuit Elders. So, when I heard that the AGU was looking for someone to be their project manager for the Climate Q&A Service extended pilot, I jumped at the opportunity.

Operating the Q&A Service doesn’t just entail facilitating questions and answers, it also includes developing and maintaining the website, negotiating software agreements, developing smart phone apps, managing committees, having near-daily conference calls and, perhaps most challenging, raising our profile so as to engage the media. Making the media aware of our service involves directly contacting media outlets that receive hundreds or even thousands of press releases a day – so ensuring that we get noticed requires diligent effort. A service with over 700 scientific experts is great, but if we don’t get any questions from journalists, scientific information can’t be communicated.

We hope the support of so many AGU scientists and staff members will help make the Climate Science Q&A Service a success!

Jeff Taylor, manager of AGU’s Climate Q&A Service