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Public Engagement Helps Scientists Tackle Global Challenges

Fifteen research scientists will engage the public about food and water security issues as the 2018-2019 AAAS Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute Fellows. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Over the coming year, scientist Merritt Turetsky will be working with the Royal Society of Canada to coordinate a series of public dialogues on challenges facing residents of Canada’s Arctic region, home of the world’s fastest changing climate.

Climbing at twice the world’s average rate, air temperatures throughout the Arctic region are altering ecosystems. In Canada’s Northwest Territories, the shifts are impacting plants, animals and residents, and putting pressure on food and water security, Turetsky noted during a training program to make scientists effective listeners and communicators with the public. The fellowship program is offered under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science.

Residents of Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and other Canadian cities will be invited to explore and discuss the transformations unfolding in Canada’s northern reaches. Turetsky’s strategic dialogues will follow the Science Café or World Café format designed to bring together stakeholders — in this case scientists, indigenous community members and other segments of the public — to “provide a forum for sharing ideas on complex issues and gaining mutual understanding of the challenges ahead,” said Turetsky. “We will use these events as an opportunity to bring stories from the Arctic to southern audiences.”

One of 15 mid-career research scientists selected as 2018-19 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Fellows, Turetsky is moving forward on one of the program’s key objectives in spearheading public dialogues about Canada’s northwest. The Arctic region was selected as a focus in recognition of Canada’s 2018 presidency of the Group of Seven, the organization of industrialized democracies of the United States, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Japan.

The G7’s scientific organizations committed to devoting their scientific expertise to the sustainability of Arctic communities, particularly those with changing oceans systems. The societies agreed to share research, open data-sharing platforms that build science capacity and continue satellite monitoring of the Arctic region.

The Program’s Roots

Turetsky, along with others, participated in the weeklong, intensive public engagement training sessions beginning on 11 June, a program Leshner envisioned as a pathway to perfecting “two-way communication between the scientific enterprise and the community it is intended to serve.”

The Leshner Leadership Institute fellowship was established in 2015 in honor of Leshner’s long-standing dedication to enhancing discourse between scientists and the public following his retirement as AAAS’ CEO and executive publisher of the Science family of journals and his earlier career as a neuroscientist, psychologist practitioner and science agency administrator.

Leshner Leadership Fellows are called upon to leverage their scientific research and interact with the public through a series of activities focused on generating bidirectional dialogue about the promise and limits of science and technology in addressing significant societal issues. This year’s group was selected to apply its expertise to food and water security.

The fellows make up the program’s third contingent since its establishment. Like their predecessors, participants also share their training by mentoring other scientists, helping scientists become strategic in their public outreach and working within their academic institutions to establish public engagement programs.

“There is a tremendous need to bring the scientific community into closer contact with the rest of society in the form of a respectful, interacting dialogue,” said Leshner. “That’s a learned skill. That is not an innate skill and therefore there is a tremendous need to train people in how to do it. This approach is to train a small cadre and then have that cadre, in turn, leverage their experience by sharing what they’ve learned with the rest of their community.”

With that statement, Leshner articulated what has become one of the program’s central pursuits as it expands its network of scientists and engineers who recognize that researchers have an obligation to interact meaningfully with the public, particularly on issues of societal significance and concern. Significantly, Leshner’s appreciation of a missing need came during a webinar presentation prerecorded to attract scientists to apply for the inaugural class in the fall of 2015. Knowing what the program needed to accomplish before it had gotten off the ground revealed how Leshner’s vision has become an applied recognition that scientists have an obligation to interact attentively with the public.

The program’s goals also represent a response to Leshner’s view of the ineffectiveness of a previously held proposition that scientists need only to educate the public about emerging scientific issues to instill public understanding and build support. That approach “is not working,” he said of what is known as the “deficit model” in a 2003 editorial published in Science.

The Leshner Leadership Fellows program was developed using relevant findings from social science research and the experiences of scientists and other professionals working in public engagement and science communication. It uses a logic model to guide practitioners in “intentional interaction with opportunities for mutual, two-way learning.” Scientific researchers in the inaugural 2016-17 class focused on climate change, a topic of continuing public controversy. The second in 2017-18 pursued the equally contentious area of infectious disease at a time of public misconceptions of the value of vaccines and risks of global pandemics.

 “After this year’s group completes its work on food and water security, the 2019-20 fellows are slated to explore public engagement around new technologies applied to humans, including artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and cognitive science,” said Emily Cloyd, project director for the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology.

The Fellows at Work

Benjamin Preston, director of the RAND Corporation’s Infrastructure Resilience and Environmental Policy Program and among the first group of Leshner Leadership Fellows, said the training helped him shift his focus to the audience, its views, and the impact of climate on its communities and positions when discussing the science of climate change.

The recitation of “overwhelming evidence of climate change and the significant consequences that change is having” often erodes an audience’s view of a scientist’s objectivity, Preston said. A more effective approach is one that focuses on the trade-offs.

“There are many voices talking about the consequences of failing to act on climate change, but few that acknowledge that both action and inaction have consequences that need to be managed,” said Preston. “Rather than trying to defend a scientific finding or policy position, I choose to explore the trade-offs associated with different courses of action for things people care about.”

For Maria Elena Bottazzi, associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the second group examining infectious disease, the fellowship came at an auspicious moment. Shortly after the program, Bottazzi was bestowed the 2018 Slim Health Award, a lifetime research achievement honor in recognition of her two decades of advancing health in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The distinction swept her into a swirl of public communications obligations. She was called upon to deliver speeches, conduct dozens of press interviews and work with young Latin American and Caribbean scientists to expand their research capacity, among other commitments. “My ability to stand out and highlight efforts devoted to the dissemination of knowledge and the training of human resources, strengthening research capacities in the region and, consequently, consolidating health systems for the benefit of the population has been directly related to the skills, tools and practice I received during my year as a AAAS Leshner Fellow,” Bottazzi said.

Bottazzi and Luis Martinez, an infectious microbes research scientist at the University of Texas, El Paso, also a fellow, organized a science communications workshop in Houston to train his university’s faculty members and students, an activity that contributed to expanding engagement capacity across research institutions.

Engagement in the Arctic Region

As part of the fellows’ concentration on food and water security, Turetsky, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, has devoted her research to understanding the systems of the Arctic region which, after oceans, represent the world’s largest ecosystem.

Her work examines permafrost deterioration and the rising prevalence of wildfires in the Canadian northwest, events that threaten to increase the release of atmospheric gases including carbon dioxide and methane, emissions linked to climate change. More recently, she has focused on soil and water quality and their connection to the region’s food and water security.

An example of rising concerns about water security has emerged from the once-considered secure resting place for some 237,000 tons of highly toxic arsenic trioxide dust produced by the now abandoned Giant Mine, a gold mining facility that operated in Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, from 1948 until 2004. It had no pollution controls in its first three years of operation. Some 16,500 pounds of toxic dust a day spewed out of the smelters until 1953, settling on lakes and atop the area’s terrain, according to a research report funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Eventually, the toxic debris was captured and buried in storage chambers and underground rocky spaces from which gold was once extracted. The debris stockpiles have become unstable and threaten Yellowknife’s groundwater supply. A remediation plan to freeze the stored toxic waste is being pursued after years of scientific examination.

Turetsky’s work in both the research and public discussion of these issues demonstrates the range of challenges being addressed by AAAS Leshner Leadership Fellows, current and past, and the increasing need for effective engagement between scientists and the public.

As Leshner wrote in his 2003 Science editorial, “We need to engage the public in a more open and honest bidirectional dialogue about science and technology and their products, including not only their benefits but also their limits, perils and pitfalls. We need to respect the public’s perspective and concerns even when we do not fully share them, and we need to develop a partnership that can respond to them.”

This story first appeared in the July 27 edition of  Science magazine's AAAS News & Notes section.

[Associated image: Yellowknife, capital of Canada's Northwest Territories, continues to confront the shuttered Giant Mine. | Robinsoncrusoe/Wikimedia Commons]