ClimateGate: Not Time to Fight Back, But to Engage

Framing Science blog logo Here's another interesting post by Matthew Nisbet where he addresses the general desire of environmental stakeholders to encourage climate scientists to fight back against the climate skeptics, creating a more hostile and political atmosphere. As it is clear that climate change's politicization is one of the current challenges we face when striving to communicate with and engage the public, scientists should steer away from any further polarization, as Nisbet says, and that advocates and scientists should work together with business and nonprofits to create public engagement programs.

Posted Jan. 4, 2010
By Matthew Nisbet, Framing Science: What's Next in Public Engagement?

Last month, I did an interview with the Philadelphia City Paper on the stolen CRU emails. The feature story
provides useful background and context on the communication dynamics of
the event. Yet in organizing these details and assembling quotes, the
reporter applies a now dominant narrative that the controversy is the
latest sign of the growing strength of the climate skeptic movement, a
movement fueled by the "anti-science" hostility of American society.

The moral lesson of this narrative, told by liberal commentators and
reflected at mainstream outlets and various science media, argues that
it's time for scientists to "fight back" and to become more politically
savvy, with scientists encouraged to go so far as to organize political
action committees and to openly support "pro-science" candidates.
Scientists are told to learn how to better communicate with the public
and with reporters, but only instrumentally, as a way to achieve their
own ends and goals.

In short, from commentators on the left, the science community is
being strongly encouraged to become more political and more partisan.
Communication about issues such as climate change is a "street fight"
that requires "war room"-style political campaigning.

Yet, the danger of this narrative and its recommendations, as Daniel Sarewitz and Samuel Thernstrom recently wrote at the LA Times, is that "citizens come to see science as nothing more than a tool for partisans of all stripes."

Instead of becoming more political and partisan, science
institutions need to innovate and re-invest in public engagement
initiatives that are aimed at restoring public trust, increasing
transparency and public accountability, and increasing public
participation in decisions related to science.

The communication goal is not to win a fictional struggle between
"pro-science" good guys (usually Democrats) and "anti-science" bad guys
(usually Republicans), but rather to increase and broaden public
learning and input relative to how expert knowledge is developed,
managed, and applied. The goal is to distribute and enable power across
groups in society rather than to consolidate it within science
institutions or within a specific political party.

Public engagement initiatives to these ends might range from hiring
additional staff to process FOI requests while rethinking norms and
policies related to the sharing and public release of data. Staff are
also needed to effectively handle crisis communication situations in a
way that enhances transparency and maintains public trust. These
initiatives would also include longer term and more intensive
investments in educating scientists, the public, and policymakers about
the realities and myths of science-society relations, and the
importance of public dialogue, two-way communication, and inclusive
decision-making. These initiatives would also include new mechanisms
for funding public engagement initiatives and for their organization
and sponsorship, especially at the local and regional level.

These were among some of the major recommendations voiced at a recent panel held at the annual AGU meetings. For more on these goals and initiatives, see this recent paper. Also see this paper by Daniel Sarewitz at Issues in Science and Technology. For an example from the EU of educating scientists on science-society relations and public engagement, see this recent article.

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