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The Data-Driven Storyteller: Jacqueline McGlade’s Language of Science

Jacqueline McGlade. Credit: Patrick Letura.

Throughout Jacqueline McGlade’s life in environmental science and policy — be it as a young researcher studying brook trout, chief scientist of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), or a member of the Maasai tribe in Kenya — she has always placed a premium on both data and communication.


McGlade is particularly passionate about making high-precision satellite data freely available, so it can be coupled with community monitoring to manage ecosystems, such as forests or fisheries, for the benefit of people and nature. While data forms the foundation of environmental policy, McGlade knows policy is not only about data and hard facts.


“For 10 years, I was confronted everyday with the reality of politics,” said McGlade, who directed the European Environment Agency (EEA) from 2003 to 2013, before becoming chief scientist at United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “I saw very quickly that the logic of science is not always best served in policy arenas.”


Policy, she observed, is full of trade-offs and horse-trading. Policymakers may be driven by social or economic pressures, morals and ethics, or cultural backgrounds. That’s when communication becomes even more important. Rather than simply dismiss these societal forces, McGlade encourages scientists to pay attention and tailor their conversations or arguments to address them.


“Be certain that the disbenefits or the benefits of what science is saying are properly understood from different perspectives,” McGlade said.


She strove not only to provide excellent data from EEA and UNEP, but to present it in accessible and engaging ways for the public and policymakers. For example, a report on the health of European beaches and water quality each summer was a “best seller” that inspired governments to take actions to improve their rankings. At the UN, she worked with scientists to identify emerging issues of potentially great importance, such as antibiotic resistance and plant toxicity, all of which have since become mainstream.


McGlade seemed to appreciate the power of communication from a young age. Her mother, a mathematician who was fluent in 19 languages, and her father, a dentist, would take the family all over the world. Traveling to so many places made a lasting impression on the young English girl.


“I realized that languages were also the key,” McGlade said. “It was no good just doing science, you really had to have languages at your fingertips.”


McGlade internalized this philosophy, not just in terms of traditional languages, but the language of science and connecting with different audiences. In her role as a science communicator, she feels it is imperative to engage and help craft the conversation, or risk others misinterpreting or misrepresenting research. In McGlade’s experience, she notes it is important to be prepared and knowledgeable, but not seem like a pedagogue.


“I always now recommend that we’re careful in the language of science,” she said. “We don’t simply think that because science has said something, it has to be true.”


She finds a more effective approach is to champion science and engineering as providing innovation solutions. When she comes across a problem, McGlade asks if that community is aware of a solution she’s seen elsewhere and can perhaps be adapted for their unique situation. It’s a tone of “we can fix this, let’s work together.”


As an avid public communicator, McGlade has produced several films, including “Planet RE:think,” a feature-length documentary about overconsumption of natural resources that won several film festival awards. She has given more than 800 public lectures, including a Ted Talk on resiliency to climate change in 2017.


From all this practice, her other key piece of communication advice is: “Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know about that’ or ‘that’s not my area of expertise.’”


McGlade retired from the UN in 2017 and has embraced returning to field research in her adopted home of the Maasai Mara Nature Reserve in Kenya. She lives in a mud hut near the reserve with the Maasai tribe, of which she became a member in 2016 when she married a chief.


She maintains professorships at Maasai Mara University, Gresham College and University College London, and has started several research projects aimed at helping the Maasai tribe improve their livelihoods, while also protecting their home and culture.


For example, she is working with warriors from the Maasai tribe to map and monitor their medicinal trees and plants with their smartphones, using highly accurate geolocation and earth observation. They plan to plant one million trees with medicinal properties, which can provide income, as well as shade for animals and increase soil moisture.


“It’s gone from a slightly crazy idea years ago, to now, it’s considered cool,” McGlade said. “The warriors are doing the mapping. They are talking about trees in the evenings in the village.”


The education goes both ways. Not only has McGlade shared her scientific expertise with the tribe, she is also a strong proponent of listening to and incorporating indigenous knowledge into resiliency plans for achieving sustainable development goals. These individual stories, she says, are just as vital for maintaining ecosystem diversity as large-scale data.

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Laura Petersen

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