30 March 2020

Geoscientists can help: Leveraging your science and communication skills to help tackle COVID19

Posted by Shane Hanlon

Credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM

By Raj Pandya

Are you struggling, as a geoscientist, with what you can do to be useful during the Corona Crisis?

We know our health is often impacted by our environment – think about pollution, contaminates, climate change, and natural hazards. These complex impacts have become a big focus of the transdisciplinary research fields GeoHealth, OneHealth, and others, However, without clear linkage between COVID-19 and Earth science, what can be done in the immediate short-term to serve our community? To put it another way, we know that public health is linked to the environment and that, in the long run, our work is important, but what can we do right now to help respond to the pandemic?

Here is something that might help: If you are a geoscientist, you are also a scientist and probably a science communicator, and you can use both of those facts to help those around you find, understand, and share the latest information about the virus. Probably the best thing we can do as geoscientists is leverage our skills and training to share and amplify the important messages from the public health community.

It starts with your family and neighbors, but it can extend to local government, churches, local nonprofits, and other community groups you regularly interact with. (Just remember keeping the interaction virtual and do your part ort maintain social distancing). With lots of help from colleagues and friends, I’ve collected a set of resources you can use to learn more about the virus, and a few communication tips that are worth remembering right now.

  1. Educate yourself: Spend some time on key websites to make sure you are up-to-date and accurate with what you know. Here are some sites about COVID-19 prepared by fellow scientific societies whose members are experts:
  2. Prepare a message: Public health scientists have put a lot of research and care into developing key recommendations, often in close collaboration with communities. (Public Health folks have been doing community science a long time). As geoscientists we can help by learning those messages and amplifying them. Make a list of the key messages from public health officials and have those ready. CDC has good high-level talking points, and WHO has a good advice for the public. The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials has an excellent guide as well: Simple Answers to Top Questions. If all else fails, you can’t go too far wrong if you steer back to the five. Finally, as you prepare your message, AGU has an extensive set of resources on science communication that you can consult for tips, examples, and background on science communication.
  1. Make it local: One of the things you can do is help connect the large-scale trends and information to individuals, communities, and neighborhoods. What do the big messages mean in a local context. If you are working with cities, Corona Resources from the National League of Cities is a good one to consult. If you work with nonprofits, this article from the Chronicle of Philanthropy or this resource page from the National Council of Nonprofits is helpful. Are there particular questions or concerns that are unique to where you live, and how can you find those answers? Where I live, I’ve been looking at my state and county health sites to try to localize the information, and you might have similar sites where you live. The Johns Hopkins interactive map is also pretty useful.
  1. Stick to the Facts: Answer questions you can – and more importantly, acknowledge that you don’t have all of the answers. Whatever you do, avoid anything that might spread misinformation – don’t speculate, think out loud, or make an educated guess! If you can’t answer a question, help someone find existing resources that can help or even volunteer to do some research with them. Remember, as a scientist you have access to colleagues, libraries, and websites that many people don’t, and you have a skill in interpreting scientific information – use all of it.
  1. Focus on the Crisis: This is an unprecedented public health event and it is important to acknowledge that health and safety of family, friends and loved ones is a top priority. While we’re in the midst of a rapidly changing event, avoid any urge to remind people of the underlying connection between health and the environment, or point out that this is what you get when you don’t pay attention to science, or lecture people about more sustainable lifestyles. There will be time, later, to have the very important conversations about why this happened, the larger systemic issues, overall context, and what we can do to be more prepared next time. Here is an analogy that I find useful: When a smoker comes to the ER with a heart attack, you get them over the heart-attack before you have the hard conversation about quitting smoking.
  1. Be Inclusive: Who in your community might need extra help? Who is vulnerable, or at risk for being overlooked? While crisis can bring out the best, they can also bring out the worst. Watch out acts of discrimination and xenophobia in yourself and others, and be prepared to speak out. AGU’s Ethics and Equity Center has some great resources for identifying and countering biases and taking inclusive approaches.
  1. Follow the best-practices: Those of you with kids know this – what you say is far less influential than what you do. We need to make sure we are following best practices, no matter how inconvenient for us or our work. If the university needs to close, the lab can wait.

I do think we will get through this, and we might even learn a bit. And I think, even though this isn’t about Earth Science, we still have a lot to offer. It might not be the science we know best, but we can be allies to public health scientists and help them serve the communities we are part of.

– Raj Pandya is the Director of AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange.