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Cheerleader, Buzzkill or Agent of Doom?Science Communication Challenges from “The Field”

Sally Palmer 10/1/2012

The title of Jensen Montambault’s recent “Science Short” caught my attention right away: “Most Scientists are (Drumroll) Human” (Science Chronicles, August 2012). In her article, Jensen reviews one recent publication that analyzes the apparent barriers in communication across non-theoretical and theoretical disciplines, even though the work of the former could be very dependent upon the latter. The researchers found that scientific articles with a higher density of mathematical equations per page are less likely to be cited in non-theoretical papers. The authors suggest this finding indicates a lack of cross-pollination that may slow down scientific progress. Papers that placed their equations in appendices, however, did not suffer a similar lack-of-citation fate.

This phenomenon got me thinking (again) about another science communication challenge — the one we as Conservancy scientists face in applying both our science (when it’s available) and our science brains (when they are fully focused) to the conservation strategies our organization is pursuing. Not surprisingly — and also discussed by previous SC contributors — scientists don’t just have trouble talking to each other; we have trouble (drumroll, surprise) talking with everyone else.

TNC has scientists in all sorts of places, doing all kinds of projects, and serving in many types of jobs. I love my job as a TNC scientist in an operating unit. It’s exactly the job I set out to achieve years ago when I served as a paid college summer intern for the Conservancy — and here I sit today. Every day is different; no day is dull. If you’re like me, you’re a scientist serving a specific TNC operating unit or units that are trying to plan for and execute a myriad of conservation strategies, at various spatial and temporal scales, on one or more types of pervasive ecological stress, with a variety of stakeholders, typically for a large swath of conservation targets, and with varying degrees of potential success or failure — all at once. I don’t know about you, but all those coincidental challenges make me feel only human on a daily basis.

And they also require an intense level of collaboration and communication. If TNC is indeed “science-based,” we simply have to find ways to be effective leaders within our operating units. This is sometimes easier said than done, particularly when we create obstacles for ourselves — mental or otherwise — to actively engaging with our colleagues. One of my favorite coping mechanisms is to begin conversations with nonscientists with this question: “Where are we on the space-time continuum here?” Not that this improves anyone’s understanding, mind you, but it does usually get a cheap laugh… which at least makes me feel better.

After the laughter dies down, though, I’m usually being asked to meet one of three specific needs: 1) Identifying key questions (including ones we can’t answer); 2) pondering/explaining cause & effect relationships; or 3) defining levels of uncertainty, potential cost/benefits, and potential risks. And the pace of our work demands that we often make these judgments — at least initially — without the benefit of math and with other people who hold a wide variety of assumptions, expectations and understandings of and tolerance for risk.

A scientist has to manage herself carefully through this type of lively – and often time limited -- debate. During these conversations, we often find ourselves falling into one of three primary roles: the Cheerleader, the Buzzkill, or the Agent of Doom. Each role is dicey in its own way, but each has an important purpose depending on the situation at hand. None of them is necessarily easy for someone trained to begin her answer to most questions with the phrase, “It depends…” Let me elaborate on each role further:

The Cheerleader: This role for TNC scientists can actually be quite fun if you (the scientist) feel relatively satisfied that good questions about a particular strategy are on the table, levels of uncertainty have been discussed, and the risk falls within an acceptable comfort level for you. The creative and opportunistic nature of TNC’s work requires that scientists cheerlead new strategies and ideas, but we still have to find our way to the base of the pyramid and strengthen the foundation (I’m imagining a pyramid of cheerleaders here, go with me). Sometimes this balancing act is easier than others. Which leads me to the next role…

The Buzzkill: More often than not, this is the role our identity as scientists requires us to play at TNC — and I’m not always fond of it. Seriously, who wants to be the one who’s known for saying, “Hmmm…I’m really not sure about that”? Alas, it often falls to scientists to draw attention to the facts at hand (or call out the lack thereof, or the ones we need to know…). The Buzzkill is absolutely necessary, but sadly unfortunate — my fellow TNC scientists are generally the furthest thing from buzzkillers in real life. Quite the contrary, actually — although I’ll refrain here from naming names.

The Agent of Doom: This role must rarely be performed, but there are times and places — for instance, in situations when we’re facing high extirpation risk and low probability that our interventions can help. You simply cannot look any TNC person worth her salt in the eye and deliver this type of information without depressing repercussions. Yes, we are science-based, but TNC is also an organization of hope, of doers. People content to sit on the sidelines do not come to work for us, and telling them that the science says hope may be quite limited is emotionally distressful, for them and for me.

In my experience, the scientists who work for TNC are not content to sit idly and ride-the-pine, either. We know that our work is in the service of our fellow doers out there. I believe that the Cheerleader, the Buzzkill and the Agent of Doom all have something to contribute to forward progress. How we as scientists negotiate these roles and execute our leadership responsibilities is critically important to TNC’s success as an organization. None of this is ever easy, straightforward, or free of our only-human shortcomings. But it is important — for both ourselves and those we work with — to understand that science plays those roles…and to know which role we’re playing when.

Earlier I mentioned my “space-time continuum” coping mechanism; I’ll close with another. Recently I’ve become fond of simply saying, “It’s my job.” It’s my job to serve these roles, and it’s my job to engage, contribute and communicate effectively so that science can always serve its proper role in informing sound conservation action. Even if it means I sometimes have to park my “It depends…” in the Appendix.
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Sally Palmer is the director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee.