My approach to work is shaped by where I live—across the street from an ill kept New Orleans cemetery. Outside my front door I see plants sprouting over crooked gravestones. It’s a contradictory but grounding view, one that shows how beginnings and endings feed each other and create something new in the process.

Local geography drives the point home. There are spurs of relatively high ground in New Orleans, ridges a few feet above sea level where the old city flourished, and where homes stayed dry after Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi River floods built these ridges, laying down successive layers of sediment centuries ago. Floods creating dry land? Paradoxical but true.

Facts like these have altered the way I think about innovation, reminding me that sometimes the best way to make progress is to remember how things all began.

For essays on subjects close to home, see www.amyclippwriting.com.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Getting Past "He Said, She Said"

What happens when some fishers take issue with the State of Louisiana? The debate is colorful, the press picks it up, and the issue gets lost in the back and forth. In no time, we're stuck in the "he said, she said" trap.

A group of south Louisiana fishers and charterboat captains have complained that the state's master plan for the coast puts too much emphasis on sediment diversions. These projects would funnel Mississippi River sediment into targeted areas to help rebuild dying marsh. There are good arguments for diversions. But diversions will change the way we use the coast, and change isn't easy. Hence the  diversion opponents who have taken their arguments public.

How to fairly convey the costs and benefits of diversions? First rule:  don't use debate vocabulary if you don't want to debate. My attempt at a fact sheet tries to avoid false equivalencies, "myth vs. fact" formats, and other score keeping gambits. A focus on common sense questions makes a more credible case.

Sediment Diversions & Louisiana's Coast
You've probably heard that river diversions can rebuild the dying wetlands our coastal communities depend on. Most scientists agree, as do most Louisiana residents. Others say diversions aren't the answer. Having trouble figuring it out? Read on.

Are sediment diversions a good idea? Thirty years of research says that diversions of Mississippi River sediment can build healthy wetlands in south Louisiana. We see the proof at Wax Lake, where a diversion of the river is building land right now. People who know the coast have long said that we can save our communities if we use the river right. In fact, diversions are widely seen as the only way to secure our coast's long-term future.

Do we know how to do this? Sediment diversions are big projects, and we will have to build in room to learn some things as we go. But we have decades of research from Louisiana and around the world to help us, so we won't be starting from scratch. We have another advantage as well. Modern diversions seek to safely copy the natural process that built our coast in the first place, so we'll have Mother Nature on our side.

Are there other alternatives? Dredging sediment and delivering it with pipelines works for areas that are far away from sediment rich rivers. But the land created doesn't last as long or support as many plant, animal, and fish species as land created by diversions. Bottom line:  we need to use both diversions and pipelines—not one or the other.

How big will diversions be? Diversions have to be big enough to build marsh, yet manageable enough to coexist with our communities. To strike the right balance, diversions would only run at their maximum flows during major floods, like the one that occurred in 2011. This will help bring in the sediment our coast desperately needs. The rest of the time, diversions would run at smaller flows or be turned off.

What about fisheries? Diversions will move saltwater fisheries further south, where they would normally be if our coast weren't losing land so fast. Having saltwater fisheries as far inland as they are today is good for fishers, because it cuts their travel time. For the rest of us, having salt water in upper Barataria and other inland areas isn't good because it's proof that our coast is washing away.

How can we help fishers make the transition? The new diversions will not be on line for at least five to ten years. That's enough time for the state and federal governments to work with affected fishers to help them adjust. If we don't get sediment diversions built in the meantime, the wetlands will die and we'll all lose—fishers, farmers, families—the two million residents who call south Louisiana home.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thinking About Rachel

I’ve been reading Rachel Carson’s biography this summer. It’s the story of how a reserved yet ambitious scientist slowly embraced her role as a national leader.

Rachel Carson was an award winning author years before Silent Spring’s arrival in 1962. Her previous books and articles, some excerpted in the New Yorker, made her a household name. The nation wanted to hear from her, and she was besieged with public speaking requests.

At first, she played it safe. Her speeches featured descriptions of biological findings leavened with jokes about her awkward transition from scientist to celebrity. But the more speaking she did, the braver she became. Pretty soon she was tackling big questions about why science matters and how that meaning should be shared.

Here she is in 1952 accepting an honorary doctorate of letters from the Drexel Institute of Technology after publication of her book, The Sea Around Us.

“Scientists are often accused of writing only for other scientists. They are even charged with opposing any attempt to interpret their findings in language the layman can understand. Literature is merely the expression of truth. And scientific truth has power to improve our world only if it is expressed. You have given your blessing to one of the most important functions of the writer today. This is to describe and to interpret, for the average man, the world that lies about us.”[1]

In a speech in 1954 to the thousand members of the Theta Sigma Phi Matrix Committee, she went even further.

“I am not afraid of being thought a sentimentalist when I stand here tonight and tell you that I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.”[2]

Before the speech, she had been afraid to talk about such things. She needn’t have worried. The Matrix Committee told her it was the best speech in their 30 year history. Gaining confidence, Rachel embraced a public voice that melded scientific insight with conviction about what the world should be. As we know now, that message, expressed in Silent Spring, changed the world.

Recent studies show why her approach worked. Put simply, she talked about what mattered to people:  health, safety, security, fairness. And she did so with exactitude and calm.

During a TV interview for CBS filmed at the height of controversy about Silent Spring, Rachel was unflappable. The film shows her sitting in her living room, quietly explaining her project:

“We’ve heard the benefits of pesticides. We’ve heard a great deal about their safety, but very little about the hazards, very little about the failures, the inefficiencies and yet the public was being asked to accept these chemicals, was being asked to acquiesce in their use, and did not have the whole picture, so I set about to remedy the balance there.”[3]

One would never know that she was under attack for being a hysterical alarmist.

Science communicators are seeing the value of this approach when talking about climate change. Ten years ago, we focused on scare tactics, making far flung projections about ice sheets and polar bears. Instead, we should have brought the message home, spoken about people’s lives and values. Rachel still has much to teach us.

Having grounded her message in the practical, Rachel closed her CBS interview with a challenge we have yet to meet.

“We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a very tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Now I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged, as mankind has never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature but of ourselves.”[4]

[1] 1997. Lear Linda. Rachel Carson:  Witness for Nature. Henry Holt and Co. p. 224.
[2] Ibid., p. 259.
[3] Ibid., p. 449.
[4] Ibid., p. 450.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In Their Own Words

Feeling jaded about the environmental movement? Want to remind yourself why activism is important and what it can achieve? Or do you just need to read some really good stories?

Then check out Women Pioneers of the Louisiana Environmental Movement, published by the University of Mississippi Press and now available on Amazon. The title might sound generic, but the stories are anything but. The book's author, Peggy Frankland, herself a veteran of years of environmental action, insisted that the women tell their own stories in their own words.

And they tell complete stories. About growing up, what their parents taught them, how their children influenced them, how their friends and husbands supported them. There are plenty of Erin Brockovich moments, but they are situated in larger narratives about the women's lives. This allows the women's achievements to be seen less as solo victories and more as expressions of larger commitments to family and community.

I helped Peggy start this project and did some of the early writing and editing. In later stages, the text was ably augmented by Susan Tucker, whose own Telling Memories is another fascinating oral history text, one that inspired the bestselling book, The Help.

Peggy's book affirms both the value of activism and the grounded way these women went about it. Ultimately, their stories show, it's all about the ties that bind.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Conundrum Busting

What do young scientists say about the challenge of bringing their work to more diverse audiences? They understand the challenge:  outreach takes time and doesn't generate an immediate career payoff. But with web-based communication intrinsic to their professional lives, many 20 and 30-something scientists understand the importance of connecting with the world outside the lab. Their response to this career busting conundrum? Start changing assumptions about how science and the real world actually work.

First up:  get rid of the "science deficit model." You have probably heard this model in action many times:  the notion that if only the general public understood science better, people would believe what scientists believe. No more suspicion about vaccinations. No more climate change denial. Those policy-paralyzing controversies would be eliminated if people would just open wide and swallow bigger doses of science.

Except that the science deficit model doesn't work. People don't change their beliefs because they have ingested more facts. For one thing, people resist ingesting facts, especially from sources they don't trust. Second, as social science has pointed out, people's ideologies, religions, media choices, and overall cultural contexts determine their beliefs. On its own, no amount of science, even sensitively presented science, will change a person's mind.

Rather than bemoaning the lack of cultural literacy in the U.S., many young scientists take a more pragmatic position:  meet people where they are. Address the sources of their skepticism. Engage them in forums that allow person to person exchanges on issues that count.

It's true that these kinds of activities are not well rewarded in traditional research settings. But more and more scientists see that the ability to communicate, work with diverse audiences, and describe their work increases effectiveness in all aspects of their careers. When they have to collaborate on a multi-disciplinary project, for example. Or when they have to eloquently defend the relevance of their research to funders.

A 2008 article bore out the this connection. The article describes a study's finding that scientists who actively share their work perform better academically. The study also found that by itself, this outreach has no impact, positive or negative, on their careers. That last finding is where the next wave of change may be headed.

Traditionally, mid-career scientists have been more inclined to share their work with the public, perhaps because their careers are well established and they have more leeway to get off the rigid "publish or perish" track. Maybe we are moving toward a time when outreach becomes an institutionally recognized marker of credibility for scientists young and old.

The conversation about how this can best be achieved is an interesting one, starting with how we define and achieve outreach in the first place. The discussion is underway, and it promises to change the status quo. Evolution, after all, is something scientists know something about.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Buzzards and Brickbats

In the late 70s, I read an unforgettable article in The Washington Post.  I was a teenager and not prone to remembering columns from the "Week in Review" section. But this article was different. The author used a great story to make a point about science communication. His thesis:  that scientists had been trained to fear the very thing that would make their work valuable—public sharing of research. The article's author claimed that scientists had come by their fear honestly; they had been taught that talking about their work brought trouble.

By way of illustration, the author told a story from the making of the movie "Hud," starring Paul Newman. Filmed in the early 1960s cow country of Texas, the movie has a dusty, sun baked feel. For one scene, the crew wanted to shoot a flock of buzzards flapping off a dead tree. To get the right effect the crew had to keep the buzzards still until Paul Newman's character pulled out his rifle and shot at them. At that point, the buzzards were supposed to fly off the tree in unison.

It all sounded easy enough, except that the buzzards didn't cooperate. Hours passed as the crew struggled to keep them from flying off the tree prematurely. Finally, someone tied the buzzards' feet to the branches with wire. That solved one problem and created another. It turned out that buzzards lose their sense of balance when they can't move their feet, and the birds began toppling over and hanging upside down like mutant vampire bats, dangling by their wire fetters. Not the effect the movie crew wanted and awful for the buzzards as well. As the ordeal continued, the buzzards learned that if they struggled, they would end up in a compromised and painful position. So they stopped moving and cowered on the tree, motionless.

The director finally got the shot he wanted, and it was time for Paul Newman to take out his rifle. The crew untied the buzzards' feet, and Paul Newman shot off his rounds. You can probably guess what happened next. The birds were afraid to move. They wouldn't fly away on cue, because they'd learned that trying to do so would hurt. Indeed, if you look at this scene in the film, you can see that the vultures just sit there despite the gun blasts. They had been scared into immobility.

According to the article I read all those years ago, scientists behave the same way when it comes to sharing the implications of their work. As young scientists, their instincts might lead them to share ideas with diverse audiences. But if they do so, they are punished. Non-technical readers misunderstand or misuse the scientists' conclusions. Or their colleagues scorn attempts to "dumb down" complex ideas. Worst of all, fellow scientists use the higher profile of the presented work to publicly shred its argument. And so, according to the article's author, scientists huddle on dead tree limbs, keeping their ideas to themselves, sharing them only with small communities of fellow specialists. Meanwhile, policy makers and citizens remain uninformed.

The article was written over 30 years ago. Have things changed since then? At a recent conference, I heard groups of young scientists discuss barriers to public outreach. Their list was familiar:
  • Outreach is separated from what goes on in the lab. This is true even for taxpayer funded research, which would seem to (and often officially does) require a public accounting of results.
  • There are few academic rewards for doing outreach. University administrators and funding agencies don't make it a priority.
  • Scientists don't have time for outreach. Their schedules are full just trying to perform research and publish their results.
  • Scientists who pursue outreach despite these obstacles can be accused of neglecting their "real" jobs.
The wires around their feet might have been palpable, but unlike the buzzards, these young scientists weren't content to huddle on a tree limb. Instead, they were eager to explore innovative ways to make their work accessible. Stay tuned for more.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Rock 'n Roll Heart: ScienceOnline 2013

It bills itself as the “Rock ‘n Roll Heart of Science Communication,” and boy is there a lot of talk about heart. And community, and openness, and collaboration—all values of the Science Online Conference community as listed in the petite, Velcro fastened orange folder that constituted our registration packet. The whole event was like that:  thoughtfully designed and imbued with self definition. Smart people doing a smart conference, smartly. It was daunting.

And dazzling. The 450 attendees tended toward 20s and 30s, lots of paisley tights, nubby sweaters, and rapid fire speech. Seasoned authors mingled with post docs and bloggers over coffee (15 gallons consumed an hour). Live scribes captured the themes of conference sessions, standing at the front of the room and rendering the cross talk in artful 4’x5’ posterboard arrays of graphics and tag lines.

I was a newcomer to this annual event, which is a hot ticket in the online writing world. This year, the 450 attendee slots were snapped up minutes after the registration period opened, with watch parties around the world established for those not lucky enough to be there in person.

Twitter was the prevalent communication medium. Ninety percent of the attendees were devoted users, as shown by a pie chart in the common area. This leant a warp speediness to the proceedings. Sessions featured double layers of talk:  participants joined in both a verbal exchange and a simultaneous volley of tweets that were pumped out and aggregated in real time.

This approach was great for compiling tools, and bulleted lists of options were the primary take homes from many sessions I attended. At one session, I scribbled down the names of ten different software programs that could convert data into cool graphics; the session’s free form discussion generated comprehensive referrals in a matter of minutes.

But there was a downside to the double quick pace. The sessions did not allow time for examining tough issues, and their attendant conflicts. This was a shame, because given a chance, the brainy and committed attendees could have done some serious pondering. Juicy issues arose at every session I attended but were passed over as the conversations tumbled on. For example:

·      Do we sabotage science outreach from the outset if we define it as separate from research?

·      Are we reaching new audiences with our science communications or just talking to ourselves?

·      How do we square outreach on social media with the demands of policy work?

None of those issues was going to be resolved at a conference. But we needed to wrestle with them, owning differences and seeing what the conflicts produced. This would have required savvy facilitation and focused time—measures that encourage the public airing of divergent opinions.

Contentious exchanges would seem to fit the conference’s rock ‘n roll model. Except that for all its quicksilver flash, ScienceOnline 2013 was less a mosh pit of ideas than a love fest where sticky issues were sidestepped in favor of agreeable abstractions (“know your audience,” “the need for transparency transcends specific careers”). The tendency to play nice seemed more coffee klatch than Clash. But, as I said, there are lots of smart people involved. If they can make room for slower, messier conversations, ScienceOnline can keep its rock ‘n roll heart in the right place.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Street Cred in Science and Policy Partnerships: Talking with the Smith Fellows

Science in action, applied research. What’s not to like? We need to take better care of our environment, and scientists can tell us how to do it. It sounds so easy. Except, as we know, it’s not. The results of science/policy collaborations can be powerful. But they can can also go wrong for both parties:  scientists’ work misused or ignored, and public servants stuck waiting for data or insights that don’t arrive until after deadlines have passed.

One problem centers on credibility. Everyone involved has a lot of it to lose. If scientists get too close to the policy sausage making, they lose their status as independent advisors. Public servants take risks too. If they publicly commit to a technically informed course of action and the foundational science isn’t complete or can’t be explained, public servants have public egg all over their public faces.

The risks and rewards of these collaborations being great, I was interested when the Smith Fellows Program asked me to speak at their recent meeting in New Orleans. The program, which offers a two year program for post-docs in conservation biology, uses the tagline, “science in action.” According to the Program Director, Shonda Gilliland, the program is designed to help fellows embrace their responsibility as advocates for the environment in the policy realm. What guidance do they give their fellows about maintaining independence while following this path?

Shonda told me about the mentors they provided each fellow, along with connections to staffers on Capitol Hill. She described the work of fellows who had linked scientific inquiry with legal analysis, creating the basis for targeted environmental action. Results and credibility:  it sounded like the fellows were finding ways to hit the sweet spot.

During my remarks to the fellows, I talked about the science/policy partnerships involved in my work on the State of Louisiana's 2012 Coastal Master Plan. I discussed how we structured the participation of partners and found ways to share interim technical results. The plan wasn’t perfect, I said, but it was a good step forward. The fellows nodded, understanding the long game I was talking about.

But cred comes in all flavors, as we were soon to find out. The next speaker was an employee of a local environmental NGO. He led off his remarks by commenting on what he viewed as my overly charitable view of the state; jibes about my work on the master plan followed. But if the style of his comments was obnoxious, the substance was fair game. His role was to highlight what hadn’t been done, what still needed attention. Those ideas were an essential part of the conversation.

Interesting that what made my work credible—getting into the mix and bringing different groups together—was at odds with the NGO rep’s source of credibility. For him, legitimacy involved standing apart and pointing out how far we still had to go. And the Smith Fellows? I hope they were left with a real world taste of the complexities involved.