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AGU webcast stresses science communication, public engagement

I recently had the privilege of watching and participating in the American Geophysical Union's (AGU) Science Policy Conference's free webcast: The Value of Science. The goal of the webcast was to open discussion and think about the literal value of science, and place it within context of the fiscal, environmental, health and safety issues. The webcast featured two brief talks, first from National Science Foundation's (NSF) Acting Director Cora Marrett, the second from former Tennessee Representative Bart Gordon, which was followed by a questions and answers with the audience.

Marrett's speech centered around both financial troubles and ideas of communication. The speech was eloquently crafted promise from the NSF that they were still behind science. She presented a strong case for both basic and applied sciences, as well as for long term studies and short term studies with quick monetizing of the results. Marrett finished her speech a call to scientists to find creative ways to collaborate to meet public demands to have science have a purpose. She reminds us that one of the keys to helping science and scientific endeavors right now is communication with the public audience as well as media outlets. She noted that the impact of this communication is key to ensuring that public opinion is behind the wide variety of scientific research.

Gordon's speech picked up with Marrett's ended: with a plea to communicate to the public better. In his experience, the more the public understand how the research applies to their life, they more they understand and accept all types of scientific research. Gordon brought his years of working in the US House of Representatives to state that today's political climate of partisanship is making things more difficult than it has been in the past. This partisanship, he claims, is more due to the gerrymandering, not lack of education. Although, Gordon says, opening up lines of science communication on all levels and about all types of science will enable the general public to be more informed to come together on the topics.

Throughout the presentations and Q&A portion, one of the hardest-hit themes were those of financing sciences, and which type of scientific research is deserving of how much. The general consensus was that all science is very important, and no one should really have to give it up. Marrett and Gordon would like to see private money picking up where public money has to leave off. Gordon noted that it's likely that government should pay for basic science and first levels of applied research because business are more likely to fund research that they will see return on quickly.

The other hardest-hit theme was how to get the public behind scientists and the NSF. The general consensus on this was scientists really need to work with media, educators, and the general public itself to help spread understanding of science's role in society. While they didn't say how, just that it needs to be part of the steps to take, they did indicate that the role of public relations is going to be placed on the scientist themselves unless a rise in science journalism takes place.

In my next blog post, I will discuss a few of the ways I've learned to reach out to the public with little effort. Hopefully that will give you a few more ideas how to fulfill the PR role they are asking scientists to take on in addition to research and writing.

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Grace Conyers