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Anne Jefferson sees social science and public engagement as ways forward

Leshner Leadership Fellow Anne Jefferson giving a presentation to staff of Cleveland Metroparks.

Anne Jefferson is finding ways to address the human side of climate science and stormwater management. Stormwater runoff, which carries urban, agricultural and industrial pollutants into waterways, has devastating consequences for water quality and ecosystems. Climate change increases the volume and velocity of the runoff, worsening flooding and pollution. Concrete steps can be taken, yet “we are not doing nearly enough to manage urban runoff,” says Jefferson. Broader dialogue among scientists, policymakers and other stakeholders about stormwater issues and urban climate resilience is needed. In addition, Jefferson, an associate professor of geology at Kent State University, says social science should be used more often to assess people’s responses to programs and how this influences implementation.

For example, Jefferson and her colleagues analyzed how environmental values, perceptions and attitudes impacted adoption of green infrastructure practices in suburban Cleveland, Ohio (they discuss this project in a paper published in 2016). Residents were offered free installation of green infrastructure such as rain gardens and rain barrels. Participation was low, despite free installation and extensive education and outreach. “Social contagion” proved most effective: if one neighbor participated, others were more likely to consider installation.

In a survey conducted one year later, many residents still expressed negative attitudes about green infrastructure. Although individuals were aware that they could take action to decrease stormwater, they tended to view it as the city’s problem and not theirs. Similar attitudes must be considered when exploring adaptation to climate change more broadly. Jefferson explains: “We know the effects of climate change and we know what to do. But how do we get individuals and governments to take action?”

Jefferson believes citizen science is a good way to engage the public. In March 2017, she shared her research with the Cleveland Metroparks Watershed Volunteer Program. The volunteers are helping Jefferson’s team collect samples for water quality analysis, and helping the park district maintain its green infrastructure. Over the next year, Jefferson has several more citizen science events planned with Cleveland Metroparks, and is looking for other creative ways citizens can participate in science data collection.

At the same time, Jefferson is working to facilitate those broader conversations about stormwater and climate change among stakeholders and other interested groups.  She co-chaired the Fourth Annual Kent State University Water and Land Symposium in October 2016. The Symposium attracted nearly 400 attendees, including representatives from government agencies, park managers, nonprofits, and businesses, and community members from the Great Lakes region.

She also engages colleagues and the public through traditional and social media, including Twitter (@highlyanne) and a blog. Throughout 2017 she’s sharing climate change stories daily on Twitter using the #365climateimpacts hashtag. For those just starting out on social media, particularly students from underrepresented groups in science, Jefferson put together a series of tips on how to be productive, and how to find “people like you” on social media: To Tweet or Not Tweet. She also recently published an op-ed about the critical importance of continued federal investment in research.

Over the past year, the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute’s Public Engagement Fellowship gave Jefferson additional tools and a network of colleagues to help her expand the public conversation about urban water problems and climate change. In March, AAAS trained interested Kent State University faculty and graduate students in communication and public engagement, helping build Jefferson’s local community of scientists with similar communication goals and skills.

The 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.