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Adaptation: A Key Word for Climate and Communication

Ben Preston conducting a mock interview during the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute training week, in June 2016. | Credit: M.C. Longshore

AAAS Leshner Leadership Fellow Ben Preston started his fellowship year as the Deputy Director of the Climate Change Science Institute at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and he’s ending it as the Director of the Infrastructure Resilience and Environmental Policy Program at the RAND Corporation. Preston studies how adaptation efforts can reduce risk from climate change, especially at the state and city level (such as impacts to critical energy, water and transportation systems). At RAND, he’ll focus particularly on policy-relevant research. He notes that RAND also has a convening function that encourages dialogue and outreach to a wide spectrum of decision-makers, ranging from local to international agencies, organizations, and businesses.

Preston has found the way to begin a productive discussion about climate adaptation is to “start with what they [the community] value, what their responsibilities are, what their jobs are, what they care about, and then figure out how climate change influences that.” Preston says climate adaptation research involves asking questions such as “What are you concerned about?” and “What are you responsible for?” He believes that such approaches to science sometimes require researchers to learn new skills, and to challenge their assumptions about how to best use their knowledge. 

Preston tries to put a human face on science to help him engage public audiences, while also connecting his messages to the larger picture. When speaking with different audiences, Preston says it is “perfectly valid to change [your] language in order to engage your audience,” as long as you don’t undercut your message.

At ORNL, as part of the institutional change activities encouraged by the AAAS fellowship, he convened a committee to develop an institute-wide communication plan. The plan sets out clear objectives, identifies audiences and communication channels, and develops the public engagement capacity of the institute’s scientists (AAAS came to ORNL to give a Communicating Science workshop to help with this effort).

Preston thinks one of the biggest challenges in developing a new communication effort across an institution is crafting messages “that are representative of the diversity of the staff and their research,” and sustaining coordinated communication efforts over time. “But I think that by putting this plan and structure in place, [ORNL] staff will know what to do and who to go to for help, and that will help with a sustained commitment.”

The Leshner Leadership Fellows are facing many common challenges, and Preston has appreciated the opportunity to talk with this dynamic group of researchers about climate communication and leadership.  As Preston continues to transition into his job at RAND, he will apply the lessons he learned from his cohort and AAAS. For him, this has included an emphasis on messaging (“what information do I want to leave with the people I’m talking with?”), and the need for institutions to incentivize public engagement.

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.