OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

New "Aldo Leopold" program to help scientists reach out

08/04/1998

BALTIMORE, Md. - Scientists today announced an innovative new program to train "scientist communicators" for the future and hopefully improve the flow of accurate, credible scientific information to policy makers and the general public on critical issues of the environment.

Under this concept, some of the nation's leading environmental scientists will become "Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellows" and more actively share their expertise in water and air quality, diseases, fisheries, agriculture, contaminants, global climate change, endangered species and other critical issues with local communities, the news media, political leaders and local, state and federal policy makers.

The program is named for Aldo Leopold, a famous environmental scientist known for effectively communicating his scientific knowledge.

Oregon State University will operate the new program on behalf of the Ecological Society of America, supported by a $1.5 million, five-year grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

"The current rate of ecological change is unprecedented in the history of the Earth," said Judith Vergun of Oregon State University, the project director. "We have current scientific knowledge about threats to the environment. The public deserves to be well-informed and our public policies should be based on this knowledge.

"But often the knowledge does not reach the public and policies all too often reflect information that's 20 years old."

For instance, on the issue of global warming, many people may be confused by complicated studies and pseudo-scientific critics who argue the phenomenon is an unproven theory of no particular importance, Vergun said.

But the vast majority of credible scientists say global warming is now a reality, that the time for action is here and that the looming crisis is very real, with implications for everything from severe weather events, to the spread of disease, disruptions of agriculture and forestry, rising sea levels and habitat loss.

That vast gap between common perceptions and scientific reality has to be bridged, experts say. The new program is designed to make professional communicators out of researchers who usually think more in terms of professional journals than newspapers or legislative committees.

"We envision a leadership and communication training program designed to help environmental scientists become more effective communicators of science to the public and policy makers," said Jane Lubchenco, an OSU distinguished professor of zoology. "The need for clearly presented, scientifically credible information on environmental issues is greater now that ever before. We're very grateful that the David and Lucile Packard Foundation shares that vision and is making this program possible."

A past president of both the Ecological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science - two of the world's most prestigious professional science organizations - and chair of the steering committee for the Leopold Leadership Program, Lubchenco today outlined the new program at the ESA's annual meetings in Baltimore.

Twenty tenured, academic scientists from a range of environmental fields of study will be chosen during each of the next three years to attend one-week workshops for intensive study in five areas: - Providing leadership within the scientific community; - Providing scientific input to the policy process; - Communicating with the news media; - Interacting with the corporate sector; - Working with non-governmental organizations.

A workshop focusing on policy and governmental issues will be held each year in Washington, D.C., and a study group emphasizing communication with the news media, business and science communities will be held in Oregon. Completion of this program will allow scientists to be designated a "Leopold Leadership Fellow," Vergun said, which organizers expect to become an honor of some distinction. Along with the participant's other scientific and academic credentials, it should help some of America's finest scientists gain more public attention, credibility and help the public, media and policy makers know to whom they can turn for high quality, credible, scientific analysis.

"Of course, there's also an expectation here that these researchers will accept the responsibility to speak out on these issues," Vergun said. "We'll look for people who take that charge seriously."

Members of the steering committee or advisory board for the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program include representatives from leading universities, governmental and private agencies, and the news media. They include OSU, Stanford University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Time Magazine, National Public Radio, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Smithsonian Institution, National Science Foundation, and a former member of the U.S. Senate.

"The difficult problems facing the Earth's environment are too important to any longer be relegated to the sidelines," said Paul Risser, president of OSU and member of the new program's steering committee. "It's time we brought the nation's most credible scientists to the forefront of this debate and gave them the training they need to speak out clearly, honestly and forcefully.

"This could be a huge opportunity to help educate the people of America and the world."