Program turning scientists into communicators


CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new cadre of scientists with freshly-honed communication skills is now working across the United States to help everyone from individuals to city council members and the United States Congress understand the complexities of science, ecology and the environment.

On topics ranging from global warming to marine pollution, these researchers are putting both time and effort into helping the public, political and opinion leaders understand science and the environment, as part of long-term plan to improve the flow of facts from the laboratory to the citizenry.

They are the first graduating class of "Leopold Leadership Fellows," a group of 20 scientist-communicators who program leaders hope will be just the beginning of a new public awareness about the complex world of environmental science.

"This is even more exciting than we expected it would be," said Judith Vergun, director of the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, which is operated at Oregon State University on behalf of the Ecological Society of America, and funded by a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

"Our first leadership fellows have now completed their training and the second group of scientists will begin work this June," Vergun said. "And the word is spreading about these people. They are getting questions not just in the U.S. but globally, and are willing to work with anyone from a concerned individual to a member of Congress."

The concept behind the program, Vergun said, is to train several groups of prominent, tenured scientists who are experts in a wide range of environmental issues, to improve their outreach and communication efforts to the public, news media, corporate, government and science communities.

The problem, she said, is that the general level of knowledge about many critical environmental issues is woefully inadequate and often reflects outdated information that may be 20 years old.

"We're at a time when our global ecosystems are really at risk, and there's a lot of conflicting or erroneous information that gets circulated about these problems or their causes," Vergun said. "Scientists are the first to admit they don't have all the answers. But on the other hand, there's a great deal that they do know, and what we have to do is make sure that accurate, credible information gets through to the public or political leaders as we form policies to deal with the world's problems."

The level of concern among many scientists is so high, Vergun said, that there has been considerable competition to join the Leopold Leadership Program and take the communication training seminars that it offers. It's conducted partly in Oregon - the next training session will be June 13-20 in central Oregon - and partly in Washington, D.C. The seminars include opportunities for role-playing, mock interviews, learning about the challenges facing journalists, input from science advisers to President Clinton, practice sessions in a Congressional hearing room, and perfecting the art of a communicating complex realities in a sound-bite world.

"There's really a cultural revolution that's happening within the science community," said Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished professor of zoology at OSU, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Chair of marine biology, past-president of the Ecological Society of America and a founder of this program.

"It used to be that a scientist who was speaking out in public was often criticized and even vilified by his and her colleagues for a wide variety of reasons," Lubchenco said. "But many scientists now see what they have to offer the world in terms of better information about a wide variety of environmental topics."

Topics that are being addressed, officials say, may include water and air quality, infectious diseases, fisheries, agriculture, pollution, global climate change, endangered species, plant ecology, biodiversity, the greenhouse effect, stream ecosystems, ozone depletion and many more issues.

"Unless there is a scientific voice out there saying that this is what we know, this is what we don't know, it's hard to make sound decisions," said Dennis Ojima, a professor at Colorado State University who just completed his training as a Leopold Leadership Fellow. "I think that as a scientific community, ecologists really need to come forward, because otherwise decisions are going to be made about systems that are critical to the social well-being that will be done on other folks' terms. Unless we put our ecological information on the table it won't even be considered."

Ojima said the training has helped him better communicate events that are occurring on the global scale in a way that makes sense to people working on a local level. Already, Leopold Fellows have given testimony to Congressional leaders, been selected for national advisory boards and consulted more directly with communities whose ecological systems were at risk, such as on a local water pollution problem.

Fellows can be contacted directly through the group's web site.

The second set of Leopold Fellows was just announced. They include experts from the University of Washington, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University, Stanford University, Ohio State University, and many others of the nation's most prestigious colleges.

"We carefully select the researchers who participate in this program to identify those who are doing sound science and show a real interest in communicating it to the public," Vergun said. "The world is facing some ecological challenges right now that are extremely serious, and this is one way we can do something about it."