1 May 2013

Changing perspectives on how scientists should allocate our most scarce resource — time

Posted by mcadams

Scientists at White House

Five scientists brief the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget on strategies for restoring the nation’s large ecosystems. From left to right are Judy Layzer (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), James Cloern (USGS) William Graf (University of South Carolina), Robert Twilley (Louisiana State University) and Kenneth Rose (Louisiana State University). Photo credit: Erica Goldman, COMPASS.

By James Cloern

Like most research scientists I struggle with the challenge of how to allocate limited time. How much do we spend on research vs. other activities, and how much on each of the problems we want to tackle?

Early in my career I thought my job was to conduct studies and publish them in good journals. I landed in a dream job at the USGS in 1976. Over the next years, I built a team to learn how coastal ecosystems work and launched a program of observations, modeling and experiments focused in San Francisco Bay. We allocated our time for activities within the science arena: publishing, contributing to scientific conferences, reviewing manuscripts and proposals, mentoring students and postdocs.

In that era I don’t recall even asking myself if we should be working outside the science arena, and we didn’t much. However, I do remember quietly asking myself if our studies of water currents, nutrients and phytoplankton were important.

My thinking on this began to change in the 1990s. I was asked to serve on an advisory committee to guide management of the Bay of Brest in France. Regional leaders asked why the scallop population was plummeting and why algal blooms were developing in the tributary rivers.

The committee concluded that the Bay was degraded by over-fertilization from agricultural runoff, and recommended changes in farming practices in the surrounding landscape of intense corn and pig production. Decision makers faced difficult choices; they wanted to understand the origin of the problem; and their decisions had impacts on the Bay but also on people and their livelihoods.

This was a watershed moment for me, an experience repeated many times since. I began to see how the discoveries we make have important implications for environmental quality, for people, and for local economies. Perhaps even more compelling, I learned that leaders facing tough choices crave guidance that is grounded in the knowledge we gain from our research.

I learned a second important lesson a decade later after the CALFED Science Program was created to find solutions to the degradation of California’s Delta ecosystem. Leaders asked focused questions from the scientific community: Should we change the way water is managed? Should we convert some farmland back to its original state? What kinds of habitats should we create to recover populations of endangered species? What would be the environmental benefits and social/economic costs of different actions?

Some of my colleagues warned that we should avoid working on questions targeted to specific management decisions because this would dilute the quality of our science or place constraints on the course of our studies. Luckily we moved ahead with a project that supported students and expanded collaboration with academic scientists. The study yielded papers on diverse topics such as the energy supply to food webs, ecological functions provided by different habitat types, and water flows in a complex hydraulic system.

For the first time we worked to communicate results of our studies and explain their significance, in this case to managers directing a large ecosystem restoration program. And I learned that it’s possible to do challenging, fun research that satisfies my intellectual curiosity but also contributes toward the solution of problems faced by resource managers.

We began to allocate time to communicate our science through presentations for program leaders, talks at local science meetings, public lectures, newsletter articles, and we even produced a film showing our team in action to teach what we learned and why it’s important (we’ve mailed hundreds of DVDs to teachers who use it in the classroom).

In the past decade I’ve had opportunities to step even further out of the science arena, perhaps furthest through invitations to give briefings on Capitol Hill to the Council on Environmental Quality, Congressional Research Service, OMB budget examiners, and congressional staff members. These people shape federal science budgets and science directions, many are trained as scientists, they listen carefully and then ask pointed questions. And, to my surprise, many told us they would like more face-to-face contact with scientists who can provide information they need to make the tough decisions they face at the national level.

Responding to these kinds of opportunities takes time. But I’ve developed a strong sense of responsibility to allocate time for outreach and communication at this level because the potential impacts are greater than the impacts of papers I publish.

My experiences over 37 years reflect a general cultural change among scientists who now accept their role as communicator to explain the value of public investments in research and how scientific knowledge can best inform policies. However, scientists today struggle to determine how much of their precious research time should be re-allocated to outreach and communication.

Many scientists face a dilemma because their institutional reward system gives little or no credit for outreach so they have weak incentives to give up time required to produce the products that are valued in their reward system. I think this needs to change, and would be interested to engage in discussions about how we can incentivize scientists to meet a responsibility we accept – to communicate outside the science arena.

James Cloern is a senior scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park, Calif.

On April 30, COMPASS published a commentary in the journal PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. This post is part of a series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences expanding the conversation. Read the summary post here, and track the conversation on Twitter by searching for #reachingoutsci.

COMPASS is an organization that coaches scientists to be better communicators; brokers connections among scientists and between scientists, policymakers, and journalists; and leads communications trainings, including for the Leopold Leadership Program.