“Defense Season”: that’s what graduate students affectionally call the last few weeks of Spring term when students finishing up their Master and PhD degrees hurry to submit their thesis and present their research. Last week, I successfully defended my MS in Marine Resource Management with support from the Oregon Sea Grant’s Robert E. Malouf Marine Studies Scholarship (a picture from after my defense is below!).
Over the past two years, I learned a lot about how scientific information is communicated to our natural resource decision-makers. I now understand the importance of an effective science communication process so our decision-makers have the information they need to best manage our natural resources.
My research: a recap
As a reminder, my research evaluated how a webinar series can improve engagement between National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers and Oregon’s natural resource managers. NOAA West Watch currently communicates information about unusual climate and marine conditions to an audience of NOAA experts and key partners (white in the figure below). This type of science communication process is considered “one-way” because information is transferred from the webinar to the audience.
My research proposed that adding natural resource managers, specifically from Oregon, could better help the webinar’s information reach communities that NOAA serves. These managers would participate in the webinars, serving as translators of the science to their community stakeholders. In return, these managers could gather community observations regarding abnormal conditions that individuals experienced in their environment. Oregon’s natural resource managers could then report these observations back to researchers through NOAA West Watch webinars (blue in the figure above). This movement of information in two directions (from researchers to managers to communities; from communities to managers to researchers at NOAA West Watch) is called two-way communication, and attempts to better match research with community or decision-making information needs.
What we found
We found that Oregon’s natural resource managers need information about our changing environment to make decisions regarding sustainable use of our resources. NOAA West Watch webinars provide this needed environmental information that gives context to Oregon’s changing terrestrial and marine environments. Having this “one stop shop” for information regarding both climate and marine conditions in a webinar saves time for our resource-limited managers.
However, we also found that it’s difficult to have engagement on a webinar. Looking at the diagram above, information is moving to Oregon’s natural resource managers, but it’s unclear how information should be moving back to NOAA West Watch. To improve this engagement mechanism, additional effort needs to be made to build relationships and facilitate discussion. In the case of NOAA West Watch, engagement needs to be incorporated into the goals of this program. To demonstrate why engagement with Oregon’s natural resource managers matter, the webinar needs to leave dedicated discussion time and facilitate engagement by posing questions.
Why this all matters
Science communication is an inherently difficult process, especially between environmental researchers and natural resource managers. These researchers and managers often have different perceptions of the environment and professional priorities. Science itself can be difficult to understand and communicate. Finally, not all science is useful for making decisions about natural resources. These factors all cause challenges when researchers and managers try to communicate science.
However, research has shown that built relationships between researchers and managers results in successful science communication. Relationships help researchers and managers trust each other and the unique skills and perspectives that the other group provides. By better integrating research and management problems, these two sides can work together to solve some of our challenging environmental questions.
Our environment is not static; it is constantly changing due to natural fluctuations, and there’s a continuing shift in “normal” conditions with climate change. Individuals and agencies who manage our resources need access to and an understanding of how the environment changes and what those changes means for our natural resources and communities. We (researchers, managers, communities) are all invested in the long-term sustainable use of environment, but it takes effective communication of sound science for that to be successful.
Congratulations on your successful defense, Emily! It sounds like the work you have done with the West Watch webinar series offers some additional tools to help make the webinars more effective. Relationship and trust building are truly key pieces in improving science communication, especially between the two unique groups that you focused on.
So sorry that I missed your thesis defense, but so glad to have this clear and concise summary available. The idea that people like to interact and discuss, and that engagement makes learning more meaningful, is a good reminder for any scientist or educator. Terrific work on this post, and congratulations on your successful defense!