AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Trains Fellows in Creating Dialogue on Climate Change

Communication Between Scientists and Polarized Public Must Go Both Ways
NPR's Joe Palca interviews AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Fellow Noelle Selin. | Carla Schaffer/AAAS

Climate scientists chosen to participate in public-engagement training at the first-ever AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute (LLI) spoke with reporters from National Public Radio, ClimateWire, and Science, and they took part in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session that generated more than 3,000 “upvotes” from online followers.

During a 6-10 June training program, the 15 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute fellows also engaged in interactive sessions on the science of science communication, public attitudes about climate change, how Americans consume science news, best practices in leveraging social media, and the fundamentals of engaging policymakers in science-based dialogue. As part of their weeklong orientation, they worked with a media trainer and each other to develop and refine key messages about their climate change research, and they began to develop public-engagement plans to be implemented at each of their institutions.

“The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute empowers the fellows to act as change agents within their institutions; each fellow will make it possible for many more scientists in their professional networks or home institutions to engage public audiences on climate change,” said Jeanne Braha, project director in public engagement at AAAS. “The fellows focus on finding common ground with stakeholders or other public audiences, which allows for more two-way dialogue on the issue. Public engagement is an effective communication strategy for polarized topics, such as climate change.

NPR's Joe Palca interviews fellows Jessica Hellmann and Tessa Hill. | Mary Catherine Longshore/AAAS

“We want to find ways to confront an erosion of evidence,” AAAS CEO and Science Executive Publisher Rush Holt told the fellows, referring to skepticism about the reality of human-caused climate change, “and that’s why we turned to you.”

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute (LLI) was established in honor of AAAS CEO emeritus Alan I. Leshner, who launched the association’s Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. The institute’s mission is to promote dialogue between science and society by training 15 mid-career scientists per year to develop public-engagement activities in their home communities. Fellows then return to their institutions with a renewed commitment to develop and implement public engagement activities, a forum for training other scientists in their communities, and increased capacity for public engagement leadership. Recruitment for next year's fellows, chosen from among infectious disease researchers, will begin in September.

“A unique feature of the LLI is the emphasis on spreading the word and lessons learned when one returns to the home campus or environment. It’s not just about 15 more good communicators, but about leveraging the training when the group returns to their home environments,” Leshner said. “A second critical feature is the opportunity for the fellows to learn from each other about what works and doesn't in public engagement.”

As many of the communications experts at the program pointed out, being able to listen effectively is a key skill in public engagement. The secret to engaging an audience is knowing others’ concerns and being able to hold a dialogue that gets at those concerns.

“Our mission is to improve quality of life. If we as scientists can’t tell a story that leads back to how something will make people’s lives better, we won't be effective communicators,” said Arthur Lupia, the Hal R. Varian Collegiate Professor of Political Science at University of Michigan, who is on the LLI advisory board. “Effective communication is not about talking. It’s mostly about listening.”

 Bridget DeSimone, of Burness Communications, interviews fellow Benjamin Preston. | Mary Catherine Longshore/AAAS 

In an interview with NPR’s Joe Palca that served as an introduction to the Reddit session, fellow Tessa Hill also emphasized the importance of orienting scientific knowledge toward practical concerns and the lives we lead. “I think we’re at our best when climate scientists connect the impacts of [climate change] to our personal lives, to our economy, to our families, to our communities,” Hill is an associate professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Davis. The Reddit “Ask Me Anything” exchange she participated in made the front page of the interactive news website and generated nearly 1,000 comments.

In another session organized for the fellows, AAAS Deputy Chief Communications Officer Tiffany Lohwater stressed the importance of tone in science communication, recommending to fellows that they be “warm, genuine, and competent.”

“You want to convey that you respect your listener,” said Lohwater, director of meetings and public engagement at AAAS, “and you are accessible to them.”

Fellow Peter Huybers said he sees engaging the public as one of the duties of being a scientist.

“We have a mission and an obligation, given who we are and the benefits we enjoy as a result of our status as scientists, to address major science-based issues in society," said Huybers, a professor of earth and planetary sciences and environmental science and engineering at Harvard University. “There’s something of a higher calling for us to communicate what we do.”