National Water Resources Conference Hosts Session on Communicating Science

Three turtles bask on a log in a pond with aquatic plants on the water.
Aquatic organisms stand to benefit from more effective communication about water resources.

Virginia Tech played a significant role in promoting the communication of science at the Universities Council on Water Resources/National Institutes for Water Resources (UCOWR/NIWR) annual conference in June.

Alan Raflo, who has been associated with the Virginia Water Resources Research Center (VWRRC) at Virginia Tech since 1997, and Kevin McGuire, VWRRC associate director and UCOWR/NIWR conference chair for the 2018 meeting, hatched the idea for a conference session on communicating science. The annual meeting, held this year in Pittsburgh, brings together students, post-docs, faculty, and working professionals from all sectors of the world of water resources.

Raflo, who in 2012 launched Virginia Water Radio, a weekly broadcast and podcast related to Virginia’s water resources, organized the conference sessions, introduced the topic at the beginning of the morning session, and moderated the afternoon session. He invited Center for Communicating Science associate director Carrie Kroehler to participate in the planning and introduction and to take the slot following the session introduction to talk about the Center’s work.

Titled “Bridging the Communication of Science with the Science of Communication,” the session attracted enough abstract submissions to warrant adding an additional block of time. Eight twenty-minute presentations on the topic were given on June 27.

Raflo used the National Academy of Sciences Sackler Colloquia on the science of science communication to frame the sessions. The first colloquium, held in 2012, was followed by additional meetings and the publication of Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda, which was issued in 2017.

Raflo’s presentation provided session participants with some of the themes and recommendations that have emerged from the Sackler Colloquia:

  • More collaboration is needed among subject matter scientists and communication scientists.
  • More research is needed on the role values and beliefs play in how people understand science.
  • How to report and discuss scientific uncertainty and how non-scientists respond to uncertainty are both important topics.
  • Scientists listening, as opposed to talking, to various audiences is an important component of communication.
  • Subject matter scientists can learn communication principles and practices that will help them communicate more effectively.
  • New technology plays an important role in communication, and social network analysis can be used to track how people receive information and pass it along to others.
  • “Finding the story in a data set” can be a powerful way to engage with an audience.

Raflo also provided participants with Joe Witte’s communication acronym “SUCCESS”: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, showing some Emotion, and telling a Story.

Kroehler’s presentation introduced the mission of Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science and engaged the audience in exercises that help participants learn to listen and to talk about their research in new ways.

Other session presenters included the following:

  • Lisa Beutler, from Stantec, described the evolution of California’s water planning process from a “fix it by building stuff” attitude to a collaborative, community-engaged, values-inclusive strategy.
  • Patrick Kane, a psychologist from Carnegie Mellon, presented his research on political ideology and belief factors that can affect people’s perceptions of daily temperatures as evidence of global warming.
  • Tom Arsuffi of Texas Tech talked about the importance of field stations in educating the public, with partnerships and stakeholder-driven projects as sub-themes of his presentation on the importance of collaboration in solving “wicked problems.”
  • Vaike Haas, from West Virginia University, emphasized the value of allowing students to “stumble upon” their own solutions in learning to map and classify streams, with an iterative learning process that helps them to develop a deep understanding of streams and stream types.
  • Stefan Kienzle, from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, described his recently launched website albertaclimaterecords.com, with its “Who cares?” feature that lets viewers know at a glance whether the information is relevant to them.
  • Rachel Boucher from Southern Illinois University told the session audience about her qualitative research project on water governance and community resilience, which involved person-to-person interviews with community members in the Cache River Watershed.
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