OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Leading marine researcher says scientists must speak, reach out and integrate into society

02/01/2017

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A leading global marine ecologist today called on scientists to increasingly engage the public by demonstrating the value of their research.

Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished university professor in the Oregon State University College of Science and advisor in marine studies for the university, urged this action during a time in which she said scientific facts are being called into question.

She made the points in a commentary titled “Environmental Science in a Post-Truth World” published today in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the journal of the Ecological Society of America.

“Access to information, and critical thinking, are essential for an informed democracy,” Lubchenco says. “A post-truth world, a U.S. cabinet full of climate deniers, suppression of science and scientists all threaten – seriously threaten – our democracy. Resistance is appropriate, but now, more than ever, scientists also need to engage meaningfully with society to address intertwined environmental and societal problems.”

Lubchenco, an internationally recognized expert on marine ecology, environmental science and climate change, is urging researchers to act boldly and creatively to counteract what she called a “pervasive” dismissal of facts exemplified by President Trump’s labeling of climate change as a hoax.

She outlines three parallel approaches for scientists to “rise to the occasion, find solutions and help create a better world”:

1)    Demonstrate the merits of science by making it accessible, which includes eschewing jargon in favor of plain language and acting in such a way that shows scientists are warm, caring human beings;

2)    Provide hope by highlighting successes, creating even more successes, and figuring out how to bring them to a meaningful scale;

3)    Modify academic reward structures to incentivize public engagement as a core responsibility.

Lubchenco, a former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2009-13) and the first U.S. Science Envoy for the Ocean (2014-16), makes those points and others in her invited editorial.

She says facts are losing ground to appeals to emotion and personal belief in the shaping of public opinion. Lubchenco sounds a clarion call for the scientific community to do everything in its power to stand up for science and also to make research findings understandable, credible, relevant and accessible.

That includes, Lubchenco says, “getting off our lofty perches and being more integrated into society.”

“Fortunately, many politicians and other citizens still believe that decisions based on science are better decisions than those not based on science,” says Lubchenco, past president of the Ecological Society of America, the nation’s largest professional society of ecologists.

The challenges of the post-truth era demand that scientists serve in a way that responds to needs through interactions with citizens based on humility, transparency and respect, she says.

“Now’s the time for all scientists to take a quantum leap into greater relevance by helping people to understand how important our work really is,” Lubchenco says. “For example, the world has finally begun to make tangible progress in addressing climate change. We can’t let a post-truth mentality derail that or the other things we do to improve people’s lives.”

College of Science

About the OSU College of Science:  As one of the largest academic units at OSU, the College of Science has seven departments and 12 pre-professional programs. It provides the basic science courses essential to the education of every OSU student, builds future leaders in science, and its faculty are international leaders in scientific research.