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Middle school students collect data for their class’s phenology research study, “Buds, Leaves, and Global Warming” in the Harvard Forest Schoolyard Ecology Program.
Credit: Pamela Snow, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Social scientists research natural scientists at two LTER sites, and find that collaboration with communication experts is key to easier and more impactful public engagement.

By Ezra J. Kottler

Sharing science creates positive change

Many natural scientists want to share their research outside the walls of academia. Sharing science lets land managers, policymakers, and regular citizens learn about what science has to say and consider it when making decisions. But once a natural scientist conducts a study, analyzes their data, and generates results, how do they actually communicate their work in a manner that makes an impact in the world?

To answer this question, we can look to social science research on public engagement conducted by members of the LTER network. In a new study, “The role of communication professionals in fostering a culture of public engagement,” communications researcher Dr. John Besley surveyed scientists working at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (HBR) and the Harvard Forest (HFR) LTER sites about their public engagement efforts and the factors that support or hinder these efforts. Working with collaborators from these LTER sites to understand the survey results, Besley and colleagues identified collaboration with science communication professionals as a key factor to the success of public engagement programs.

Science communication professionals, not individual scientists, are key

Prior research on science communication has largely focused on the role of individual scientists in the public engagement process. This research draws on the premise that by understanding the relationship between scientists’ beliefs about public engagement and their choices on how to do outreach, one could help individual scientists make better choices and implement more effective outreach strategies. Besley initially built on this approach, but found that the majority of scientists surveyed already had very positive baseline beliefs about public engagement. This was encouraging, but meant that there was little possibility of improving public engagement by increasing scientists’ positive beliefs about communication.

However, nearly all subjects independently brought up one specific factor in their discussion of what made outreach efforts successful: collaborating with communication professionals employed at their LTER site.

LTER sites are perfect for science communication

Among scientific institutions, LTER sites are well situated to facilitate high quality public engagement. “They’re the right size, large enough to have funds and resources for outreach, and small enough for communication specialists to form meaningful interpersonal connections with the scientists,” said Dr. Besley. “Additionally, as these are long-term sites, we can study the long-term impacts of science outreach on communities.” In this way, not only do LTER sites provide a useful opportunity for natural scientists to study long-term ecological processes; they allow social scientists to study how a long-term funded site establishes and grows a relationship with public audiences over decades.

Who are these science communication specialists?

Meet Sarah Garlick, Director of Science Policy and Outreach at the Hubbard Brook ResearchFoundation. Trained as a geologist and science writer, Sarah designs and develops programs that engage community members and decision-makers with long-term research at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire. As part of this work, she leads live roundtable events that facilitate cross-sector conversations among scientists, natural resource managers, business leaders, and other community members about issues such as forest regeneration and invasive pests and pathogens. She also works with scientists to design synthesis projects that engage with stakeholders and decision-makers throughout the research and communicate relevant results to broad audiences. In addition to her integral role in the implementation of science communication at Hubbard Brook, she co-leads research projects that help improve the efficacy of science communication.

The LTER scientists emphasized the role research station communication experts play in establishing a strong culture of public engagement in the LTER community. LTER scientists viewed science communicators as well-informed on key issues, respectful, and possessing the experience and skill to improve the success of engagement strategies. Additionally, over half of surveyed scientists desired communication professionals to take on a major role in evaluating engagement quality, setting public engagement strategies, and making educational materials for the public.

This research suggests that the expertise of science communication professionals may currently be underutilized at scientific institutions. If natural scientists think they have to create each engagement program from scratch, there is a serious barrier to entry. If, on the other hand, communication experts act as active collaborators throughout the project, public engagement is easier to start and more effective at achieving goals. It makes intuitive sense that an active communications partner who is well versed in evidence-based engagement practices and metrics to assess the impacts of engagement will improve the quality of engagement activities. Communication professionals are often experts in both.

A path towards better communication

“This work is a pilot study of sorts,” said Dr. Besley. “It’s a snapshot in time of opinions and outreach strategies within two LTER communities.” Ultimately, the researchers would like to expand this work to incorporate more LTERs and see whether further incorporation of science communication experts into natural science collaborator networks improves metrics of public outreach success.

Ultimately, John Besley and his Hubbard Brook collaborator Sarah Garlick expressed excitement for the future of this research. They believe that communication professionals at research stations have the potential to lend both support and expertise to science engagement efforts. Sarah Garlick pointed out that her position as an employee of a non-profit organization created to support the science of an LTER site is somewhat unusual, and other LTER programs may not have specific funds allocated to staff members trained in public outreach. “We should be practicing our public engagement with the same rigor as our research, and so we need to bring in experts,” said Dr. Besley. “The LTER network has the potential to be a leader in expanding what we know and how we practice effective engagement.“

If you would like to learn more about this research and get involved, reach out to Sarah Garlick via email at sgarlick@hubbardbrookfoundation.org