Daniel Swain: The Climate Scientist-Communicator
Links to people, articles and other stuff mentioned in the episode
- Daniel’s UCLA bio page
- UCLA’s Institute of the Environment & Sustainability
- Weather West/California Weather blog
- Daniel on Twitter
- The National Climate Capacity Center for Climate & Weather Extremes (where Daniel is a fellow)
- The Nature Conservancy’s California program (where Daniel is California Climate Fellow)
- Katharine Hayhoe’s homepage
- Katharine Hayhoe on Twitter
- Michael Mann’s homepage
- Michael Mann on Twitter
- Noah Diffenbaugh’s Stanford homepage
Run of show
01:26 Daniel on his research specialties (climate extremes) and the public engagement part of his UCLA job
02:29 How the public engagement part of his UCLA position came about
03:36 How he lobbied to make a public-engagement forward position happen
05:59 How the position has allowed Daniel to expand has media engagement and what the partners that pay for the position get out of it
08:00 Weather West, his blog: what he talks about and why he thinks it gets more than 1 million visitors a year
12:06 Twitter vs. blogging, climate vs. weather, and which intersects more naturally with social issues
13:49 Some of the mistakes he’s made as a science communicator; how he got better; why it’s OK that every scientist isn’t drawn to public engagement; why many more scientists need to; the dearth of extended formal science communication training for those scientists who are really interested in it; and how no one outside of science wants to hear all the low-probability ways scientists are wrong
19:27 Why finding institutional support and judicious use of social media are critical for early career scientists interested in communicating science
23:00 Why getting over your reluctance to talk about topics you haven’t written about for peer review is critical for communications success
27:03 What kinds of hate mail he gets as a climate scientist, how it differs from the hate mail other climate scientists get, and the anxiety he thinks is behind the hate mail
30:02 Gender, equity and science communications: How Daniel thinks the pre-existing barriers to women and people of color in science academia works against their pursuit of communications opportunities
32:58 Are climate scientists (or scientists in general) the best advocates for “listening to the science,” as Greta Thunberg tells us?
36:41 Daniel’s models for effective advocacy and scientific integrity
38:35 How Daniel thinks we can make positions such as his more prevalent — what has to change and who has to advocate for it? (Hint: Don’t wait for someone to make it happen.)
BOB: This is Science + Story. I’m Bob Lalasz. On today’s show: Daniel Swain. He’s a climate scientist at UCLA with science communications written right into his job description. In the middle of a climate crisis you’d think such jobs would be everywhere. No dice, says Daniel.
DANIEL: What I hear over and over again is how sparse the institutional support for these sorts of non-peer-reviewed endeavors actually is, and how in a lot of cases scientists spend essentially nights and weekends, their own personal time, doing this. Because it’s sort of seen as a nice-to-have extra in their job, but really not something that’s fundamental to their primary responsibilities that they actually get paid to do in an academic setting.
BOB: Coming up, Daniel Swain on the two kinds of hate-mail climate scientists get, why talking about what you haven’t written about is actually key to becoming a better science communicator, and how to make positions like his more prevalent.
BOB: Welcome to Science + Story. How you doing today?
DANIEL: I’m doing well. Thanks for having me.
BOB: Yeah, it’s a pleasure to have you. So tell me about your research specialties. What do you study and what do you write about in the academic world?
DANIEL: So essentially what I study are climate extremes. So I think a lot about how extreme weather affects us all and is changing in a warming climate. So the kinds of things I tend to take a look at are floods, and droughts, and the atmospheric physical processes that drive them. Lately we’ve also been looking a little more into things like wildfire, which themselves have a pretty strong climate component as well.
DANIEL: And so in addition to doing the physical science research into these sorts of things I also spend a lot of time talking about them in public to different audiences. Sometimes it’s writing on the Weather West blog, sometimes it’s doing interviews with journalists, or recently even briefing U.S. senators. So it really stands a pretty wide range of audiences, and I really enjoy interacting with them all.
BOB: So you’re in a position at UCLA where public engagement is part of your brief. It’s part of the mix of things that you do as being a climate scientist at UCLA in an academic environment. So tell us about that and how that came about.
DANIEL: What I hear over and over again is how sparse the institutional support for these sorts of non-peer-reviewed endeavors actually is, and how in a lot of cases scientists spend essentially nights and weekends, their own personal time, doing this because it’s sort of seen as a nice-to-have extra in their job, but really not something that’s fundamental to their primary responsibilities that they actually get paid to do in an academic setting. And so I personally feel really lucky to have a research science role where everybody – all the institutions who are supporting me are very enthusiastic about the amount of science communication and outreach that I actually partake in.
BOB: So this is still early in your career. This is not a tenure-track role, right? Was this a position that was created for you? That’s the first part of this question. And then if it was, how did you make that happen? Or was the position there and you just applied for it?
DANIEL: This is one of the reasons why I feel so fortunate to be where I am now, because it was not a position that existed prior to having conversations with a lot of the folks in each of these institutions. So Peter Kareiva, who is the director of the Environmental Institute at UCLA, which really — sort of an early champion of this — this is — you know, this notion of the “scientist communicator.” Not just a scientist who communicates or the communicator who is well-versed in science, but an active practicing scientist who spends a significant fraction of their time actually engaged in this way. So this was sort of a vision that he and I shared early on a couple of years ago, and that it turns out that some forward-thinking folks at the Nature Conservancy shared that vision. And it sort of snowballed. Eventually I found willing partners at NCAR as well where… There’s actually a lot of folks who think this sort of interaction is valuable, but for which — because they’re largely a federally-funded entity there’s not a lot of money for. So this sort of position takes advantage of a variety of sort of non-traditional funding sources and sort of amalgamates the shared vision of a lot of different people, and I just happened to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when all of this was coming together. And, I mean, it was definitely the product of active conversations. I don’t think it would’ve necessarily happened the way that it did without a lot of active intervention on all of our parts. And it was something I needed to advocate for strongly to all of these institutions. And it didn’t happen immediately; it took several years to take shape. But it’s a sign at least that I think there is growing recognition and growing willingness to sort of put your money where your mouth is, at least when it comes to some of these more forward-thinking institutions.
BOB: But what are the formal requirements in the public engagement part of this position? What are you required to do? What are they asking you to do, each of these partners that are funding this position?
DANIEL: You know, on that end it’s actually pretty open-ended I would say. Because I sort of came into this already doing a lot of these things in fairly high volume — having — you know, writing these blog posts, doing these media interviews, engaging on the — sort of the public-speaking circuit. So in large part it’s sort of freedom to continue doing what I was doing but to do it — you know, experiment with slightly new ways of doing it, and also expand the breadth and the depth of those conversations. And so I think in terms of the audience that it reaches, probably the most important thing that I do is these conversations that I have with journalists, which are very frequent. Often I’ll have weeks that go by where I’ll do five or ten different interviews, and that’s not really all that unusual actually for a random week out of the year. When there are certain sorts of events occurring like a big wildfire or a hurricane making landfall or something like that I may do even more. And I think those conversations end up reaching – it’s sort of a multiplicative audience. It’s — you know, you talk to whichever journalist is writing the story on this. And then they write up their story and people read it in the newspaper, or they see it on TV, or listen to it on the radio. And then these days they get shared on social media. So there’s this — in a lot of ways I think the — some of the value that the — each of these institutional partners see is in the constructive visibility that they receive through this, in the sense that, you know, my name is attached to hopefully accurate and insightful quotes in wildly-read news articles, and then the institutions then associated with those things, which I think everyone sees as a positive thing.
BOB: So it started for you with this blog called “Weather West,” which you’ve been doing since 2006, which in many ways was the golden age of blogging. And you’ve continued to do it; it’s still going now. What is Weather West? What do you cover, and why have you been able to build such a big audience for talking about the weather and climate?
DANIEL: So Weather West, as you say, has been around since 2006. So it’s been around over a decade now, which is a little bit hard to believe. I actually started it when I was in high school, believe it or not. So it’s something I sort of stuck with all the way from really before the time that I had any kind of formal scientific qualifications whatsoever, all the way up to the present, you know, and was writing also through the process of getting an undergraduate degree in atmospheric science and then a PhD in (inaudible) systems science. So I might be slightly horrified if I go back and look at posts from ten years ago. But it has been around in some form for a long time. And, you know, I think it works — well, it received the audience that it now has. Every year it tends to get about – around a million views now, which is genuinely still hard for me to believe compared to its beginnings, where I’m pretty sure that there was nobody reading it the first year. I guess that’s sort of how a lot of blogs get their start. But, you know, I think it works because it’s — there’s a niche audience because it’s geographically-targeted. I really do talk mostly about California and California-related climate and weather events. But it’s also — it does touch on some broader issues. So today, for example, I’m actually writing up a blog post that talks about the short-term weather and the fact that it’s going to remain dry in California for the next few weeks, but also opining a little bit on the public-safety power shutoffs that California recently experienced as a result of… Well, people argue exactly what triggered them, but at least ostensibly the trigger is extreme fire-weather conditions. But it’s this legacy of the wildfires you’ve seen in recent years and all the devastation that has been wrought. So it’s sort of an amalgamation of a bunch of different earth-science topics that are tied together by weather actually. And originally it was the Weather West blog, not the Climate West blog. And I think what draws people’s attention in large part is that it is still a weather focus. I talk about climate in the context of weather, and wildfires in the context of weather. But ultimately it’s the day-to-day and the week-to-week variations that I think interest a lot of people, and it sort of helps me stay grounded a little bit, brush up on my meteorological credentials. But also I think it’s something that a lot of people can relate to. Because a lot of times climate change and some of the broader issues we talk about in environmental science are a little bit abstract for a lot of people. And I think everybody really understands the kind of — how the variations in weather from day to day affect just their day-to-day plans. You don’t necessarily have to be an avid outdoorsperson, or a farmer, or a firefighter to be affected by these things. Even just what you choose to pick out of your wardrobe to wear on any given day is affected by the weather. And so I think that’s a nice point — a common point of entry for a lot of folks into these broader conversations surrounding climate change or a variety of other environmental issues. The weather is something that I think a lot of people can relate to, and it makes for an inclusive conversation rather than a divisive one. And I think that’s – I think that has a lot of power, especially these days, when, you know, online comment sections are filled with this vitriolic and off-topic comments that lead in all directions. I think it’s nice to have something that — literally talk about the weather. People joke about that but there’s — I think there’s enough people who are deeply, genuinely interested in it that it’s a powerful tool.
BOB: Is there a difference between what you do on Weather West and what you do on Twitter? Are you more controversial on Twitter than you are on Weather West? Are you sort of talking about weather on the blog versus taking on meatier, more contentious topics on Twitter? Or are you mirroring what you do in both platforms? How are you approaching it?
DANIEL: You know, that’s actually a really interesting question because I haven’t thought about it as such very much. But I think it is interesting to reflect on this. And I think on Weather West probably the biggest difference is the inherent geographic focus really on California, but definitely constrained to the western U.S. But I think on Twitter I do tend to talk more about the broader issues with respect to climate change and how climate change intersects to a certain extent with social issues. Because ultimately I’m a climate scientist. I’m a physical scientist and my formal scientific training is in how the atmosphere itself responds to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. But in a broader sense climate change is just as much a social issue, and an economic issue, and a political issue as it is a physical-science issue. It really is all of these things. And we talk about the different aspects of climate change in isolation at our own risk I think. And so Twitter is a good platform I think to sort of expound more broadly on these other aspects of climate change. And because there is less of a geographically-constrained audience that’s where I tend to do it rather than on the California-focused Weather West blog.
BOB: You told me when we were talking before the taping that you didn’t have any formal science communication training before you started this, and that public engagement you said isn’t for everybody. There are a lot of pitfalls, and to have a net-positive effect you have a steep learning curve and you have to make a lot of mistakes. Let’s talk about some of the mistakes you’ve made and some of the ones you’ve learned from. What are the ones that stick out to you?
DANIEL: So I think it is true that science communication probably isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. I think the first thing to realize about it is that it’s okay that it’s not for everyone. There really isn’t a need for every scientist to have these deeper public conversations in decidedly non-scientific, non-peer-reviewed realms. But in general I think there is a great need for more scientists to engage in that way. And so there is some tension there between the enormous societal benefits that you get when scientists do engage, but the fact that some scientists for whatever reason don’t want to, or feel like they aren’t — that they won’t be good at it.
DANIEL: And if you’re not interested, and if you feel like it isn’t for you, then by all means you don’t have to engage. And that’s totally fine. But I think the key is being able to find opportunities for those scientists who really do want to engage and who are good at it. And I guarantee you there are a lot more scientists who are both willing and skilled in this arena who just don’t really have the opportunity for a variety of reasons to do so. And I think one of the challenges is that there is sort of a dearth of effective formal training. You’ll often see sort of one-off day-long, or maybe week-long science communication trainings put on by certain programs or institutions for scientists who are willing and interested to engage. One of the problems with these is that sometimes it’s not necessarily selecting from a pool of scientists who specifically really want to do this. It’s something that broader institutions say, “All of our scientists should do science communication training,” and so everyone goes to this event and, you know, learns some key pointers on how to do it better. And I think a better way to think about it in the long run may be to really pick out and find ways of soliciting feedback from those scientists who really are willing and able to engage on some level, but maybe just don’t feel like they have enough background or training to do that. And I think there’s been improvement in this direction in recent years, but I still think we have a long ways to go.
Because ultimately I think the greatest barrier is that engaging in effective science communication takes a lot of time. It’s a big time commitment, and I don’t really think anyone is great at it right off the bat. There are actually a lot of reasons why — you know, some of the formalisms that are drilled into our heads as scientists are not always the best attributes to have when you are talking to a broader audience, or when you’re talking to journalists or policymakers. Scientists, for example, tend to lead with the caveats and weaknesses of the study or the findings that they’re talking about, when in reality the things that most people are interested in are what you do know. And if you’re reasonably certain of something that’s what people want to hear about, not the various low-probability ways in which you might be wrong. So there’s – in some ways there’s this inversion of what we’re taught as scientists to be important in writing peer-reviewed papers and what is important in a science communication context. So I think that in some cases we’re sort of working a little bit from behind.
And so, you know, for example, in my early interviews with the media I think I did exactly that, or I lead with the caveats, which makes for a pretty boring interview. Certainly no good sound bites. So I think over time there isn’t necessarily one really, you know catastrophic interview that stands out in my head. But I think back to how things went in the beginning and I can just — I do — I just sort of shake my head since I know that they were not good interviews on my part. And that was largely my fault, not the interviewer’s fault. And I think really the only reason why that improved over time is I sort of through some self-criticism and through helpful feedback from other scientists and the journalists themselves, who provided – you know, because I was willing to stick with it and had the time to continue to engage, things got gradually better. And then they got significantly better. And, you know, now I’m relatively comfortable just picking up the phone and launching right into a live interview. That’s — you know, I’m not somebody who was particularly fond of public speaking or being on stage prior to this, and that has changed over the course of this multi-year experience I would say quite a bit. I still prefer radio to TV, since I don’t have to be on camera. But, you know, even then I think I’m a little more comfortable in my own skin than I used to be. And that’s really just because I’ve been lucky enough to have had supervisors, as a PhD student, as a post-doc, and now as a research scientist, who let me spend enough time doing this to actually get better at it.
BOB: So if somebody came to you, a young scientist just starting out, and said, “I want to have the public profile that you do in my discipline. Tell me how I can accelerate that. Tell me what I need to know that you wish you had known back when you started.” Other than you need a lot of opportunities and don’t lead with the caveats, what else would you have wanted to know when you start out? What else would you tell that person?
DANIEL: Since the greatest challenge is I honestly think finding institutional support for actually engaging deeply in a sustained way, I think maybe the first step is to be thoughtful up front–whether you’re a PhD student or an early-career scientist — about who you’re working for and to what extent they’re going to be amenable to this sort of — this level of engagement, and to maybe bring it up when you’re talking about potentially taking on a new position somewhere. “Hey, this is something that I would like to do. Is that going to mesh with your expectations of what my role is going to be in this organization?” And I think having those conversations up front, especially, you know, starting when you’re a graduate student, I think could be really powerful because it sets you up to at least have the potential to have that kind of trajectory. So that’s I guess one thought. I think the other is don’t fear social media, which is to say that I think there used to be a real–and maybe this is a generational thing… You know, I’m still a relatively young scientist, and maybe I’m in circles that are a little bit different than a lot of the senior scientists out there today. But I think judicious use of Twitter, for example, can give you an instant platform in ways that almost nothing else can I think these days. And, you know, there’s a lot of pitfalls there, too, because Twitter is both an — you know, a unique and spectacular resource for information, but it’s also kind of a cesspool, depending on which part of it you inhabit, and how you engage, and the kinds of things you engage with. And so there is a lot of nuance there. But I think being visible on the internet and on social media, while not sort of making your whole scientific life just trying to drum up Twitter followers, is an important balance. I mean, I think there’s tremendous value in not just the unidirectional flow of information, you know, from scientists to society, but also from everyone else back to the individual scientists. I mean, I know a lot of my research today has been heavily informed by conversations I’ve had with people outside of my scientific field about the questions that I didn’t have answers to, and couldn’t give good answers to. And as a scientist of course that’s frustrating not being able to give good answers. And this is a great way to solicit form a broader community information about what’s actually important and what’s actually interesting in a broader sense. So I think social media is a powerful way to sort of develop your own platform even if you don’t necessarily have one to start. And, you know, you can do that without a huge amount of investment of time as long as you’re somewhat cautious about how you engage and sort of the level at which you engage.
BOB: So when I work with scientists, this is my experience. And I come from the NGO world, although I now work with academic scientists as well. I don’t find so much today that scientists are afraid that they’ll be denigrated for public engagement. It is more a question of time. But then there’s also the question of comfort of talking about things that they don’t have direct knowledge of – “direct knowledge” being they haven’t written about it themselves in a peer-reviewed format. How did you escape that, and what’s your recommendation to other scientists when they think about talking about things that they haven’t themselves written about, are being asked questions about — what’s your recommendation in how to overcome that hesitation?
DANIEL: I think this is absolutely critical actually when it comes to science communication in the modern era, and in particular practicing scientists communicating not just their own science –although that is of course important — but science in general, and science-adjacent topics. And I think there is still a lot of reticence among I would even say most scientists, maybe even the vast majority of scientists, to really speak what a lot of folks might say “outside their domain.” And that reticence I think in some sense is well-taken in that you don’t want to be speaking with ostensible authority about something that you really don’t know about. That’s really dangerous and I don’t think anybody would say that that’s a good idea. But I think the challenge here and the nuance really comes down to what individual scientists perceive as what — as their own domain. And as you mentioned I think a lot of scientists define that as, “Have I written a peer-reviewed paper on this exact topic or not?” And the reality is most scientists actually can speak not just conversationally but I would argue really deeply about a much broader range of topics than just the literal narrow range of things that’s within their immediate subspecialty. And part of the reason for this, you know, is just because in the process of doing research, and in writing peer-reviewed research papers, you actually have to do a lot of background reading on adjacent topics. You know, you write a literature review. You discuss your results in the context of your field. All of that I think for most scientists should be fair game in the public sort of science-communication arena. Because the litmus test I use for myself increasingly I think is essentially this. If I’m not willing to engage on this particular topic, or if I don’t opine when asked to talk about something, is the next person — this journalist or this member of Congress — turns to get an answer to the question they’re asking more or less likely to be able to give correct information than I am? And in a lot of cases, you know, the next person that’s on the list is maybe not a scientist at all, or maybe a scientist in a completely different field. And so often when I apply that litmus test to a particular situation it means that I then am willing to have that conversation. And I think this is sort of a very personal question I think for individual scientists, and I think every scientist (is) going to have (a) different with having these conversations about things that, you know, they haven’t their own paper on. But I think in general while there is risk in straying too far from things that you really truly deeply know about, I think most scientists could afford to speak more broadly. Because I think most scientists actually know more about more things than they’re willing to give themselves credit for.
BOB: So you write a lot about climate change, and I wasn’t totally surprised to hear from you that you get hate-mail. What’s it like? Can you sift it into genres? Is any of it useful for you?
DANIEL: You know, it’s — I sort of shift it into the — really two bins. There’s the really mean-spirited bin where — and then there’s the — kind of the kooky bin. And there’s some overlap. But it’s really interesting to talk to other climate scientists also who are very visible in the public realm, who do a lot of science communication — Katharine Hayhoe comes to mind, Michael Mann another name — but seems to be a bit of a commonality in the messages that make it into all of our respective inboxes–sometimes also real, physical mail shows up, and our voicemail on the answering machine — is that it’s people who are very anxious about the fact that certain aspects of the world that are really important to them are changing, or are going to change shortly, or are perceived to have changed in some way. People who are really anxious that the implication of climate change is that they’re going to have to radically alter their way of life in some way. And I think actually if you really think back to the root cause of a lot of it, that kind of makes sense. I think there is a lot of collective anxiety about what climate change means for society, especially in terms of what we’re going to have to do to really address it in a meaningful way. Obviously then that manifests in very different ways. Sometimes it’s people who are genuinely concerned and anxious, and I get that. Sometimes it’s people who, you know, accuse you of being on the payroll of some liberal thinktank or being Al Gore’s best bud. Those are not the exact words used in these emails but I’ll keep it safe for work in this podcast. But, you know, I think it’s people who very strongly conflate the physical science of climate change and political ideology. And often these criticisms or these hateful messages are very targeted towards the perceived liberalness of science, and the perceived liberal biases of climate scientists in particular. And I think that — you know, that’s — it’s an interesting perspective to take. We know that climate change has become a massively partisan issue in the United States in particular, to a much greater extent than a lot of the rest of the world. And I think essentially we’re seeing that sort of play out in terms of messages that show up in our inboxes, you know, when we do a radio interview or when we’re on TV.
BOB: You mentioned Katharine Hayhoe. So you’re a white guy and you’ve had a lot of success early on communicating about the science of climate change. What are the — from your standpoint, from your experience — what are the gender and equity issues for researchers who want to communicate let’s say in climate change, or in science in general? Frame those up for us. What do you see?
DANIEL: Well, there are many. And I think one of the challenges, especially right now as science communications slowly emerges as something that’s recognized as being more important in academia and in the science community in general, is that there are already so many pre-existing barriers if you’re not a white guy like myself, that the additional pressure of doing something else that’s seen as sort of extraneous or weird still in certain circles, that sort of amplifies those pre-existing burdens. And so I think it makes for an even higher barrier to entry into the science-communication realm for women and people of color especially because they’re already working harder to prove themselves right off the bat. And this is just another thing — another way in which you have to convince your supervisors or your peers that this is something worth doing, and that you’re worthy to do it. And I try to be really conscious of that in the sense that I do recognize that I’ve been extremely lucky and privileged to have had the success that I have and to have made the connections that I have so far. And that’s — you know, I think that plays out… I mean, even in a very literal sense we were just talking about some of the hate-mail that makes it into the inboxes. I know for a fact that Katharine Hayhoe’s inbox hate-mail is qualitatively different than mine. It is very gendered. A lot of the hate-mail that she receives is focused not only on the fact that she’s perceived as being a liberal climate scientist, but also that she’s a woman. And that is itself the focus of criticism. And so I think it extends on a bunch of levels. I think it accentuates pre-existing institutional barriers that exist for women and people of color, but also when you do have the opportunity to engage, that the feedback you get can be vicious in a way that’s not just targeted against you as a scientist, but is targeted more at you as an individual and your particular identity. And I think that can make it even harder in a way that I personally don’t have to deal with.
BOB: I’ve always wondered if scientists are actually the best advocates for [quote, unquote] “listening to the science,” as Greta Thundberg tells us. What do you think? Is that a gap that needs filling?
DANIEL: I think it’s a gap. I think it’s definitely one gap that has been filled by the recent surge in climate activism. I think there is — there’s a flipside to that as well, where there have been a number of claims made by certain individuals or certain groups that are not necessarily consistent with what the science tells us about climate change. And so there is I think — there is some risk in sort of losing the factuality of the message. But I think that this is not new or limited to climate actually, this question of whether — or to what extent it’s appropriate for scientists to be advocates for topics that are directly related to the kinds of science that they do.
And I think — you know, I’m really of two minds on this. One is that there are risks in scientists — or at least perceived risks of scientists losing their so-called “objectivity,” or at least losing the public perception of their authority as a domain expert who’s not necessarily invested in the particular outcome, but who’s invested in essentially the truth, the factual truth as we know it. There is a risk that if you go too far down the activism route the public perception and perhaps the reality will be that it’s no longer science; it’s actually something closer to advocacy for a particular outcome. But on the other hand I also think that, first of all, scientists are human beings, scientists are individuals with individual views. And beyond that I also think that when it comes to these big societal issues that intersect with science in really intimate and complicated ways, as does climate change, that on some level climate scientists are, at least in terms of their knowledge surrounding the underlying facts and the reality of the situation, are better suited than anyone to talk about the implications because they do have such a deep-seeded understanding of how and why things are changing and what that might mean for the future. So I think this is another case that’s essentially a personal decision for individual scientists, how far down the spectrum of advocacy individual folks are comfortable going. And I think for me personally I have moved a little bit down the spectrum in the direction of having very open and free conversations about my own personal views on these things. But I guess what I still try and do is make clear that those are my personal views and that that’s not necessarily the direct result of the peer-reviewed science which I do. And so I guess that’s one option of slowly moving in that direction but, you know, sort of remaining not fully in one camp or the other. And I guess that may not be a totally satisfying answer, but I think maybe what that gets to is the fact that this really is a complicated question with very personal implications, and that I think something that every individual scientist probably is going to have to decide separately for themselves.
BOB: Are there any models that you have in mind when you’re doing public engagement, who have this level of advocacy that you’re comfortable with, but that are also maintaining a high level of scientific integrity when they’re doing their communications as well?
DANIEL: Yeah, I think probably the closest model for me personally would be Katharine Hayhoe, who has done a really good job I think of doing just that, and has really been… You know, I can only aspire to be as effective as she has in that way, in terms of reaching an incredibly broad array of different communities while still doing good science, and also equally importantly retaining the public perception of still doing good objective science I think, which is for better or for worse equally important as the reality of doing good and objective science. That’s really I think the one name that stands out most obviously to me personally. I mean, I have — you know, and I also — I take a lot of inspiration from my former PhD advisor as well, Noah Diffenbaugh, who I think has had a lot of experience in the public-science-communication realm. And, you know, we’ve had a lot of conversations about this – exactly this sort of spectrum of advocacy and perceived objectivity in science, and how – partly how it is an individual choice, and how in different circumstances and at different times one might choose to fall at different points on that spectrum. So I think, you know, the people I’ve worked with personally in my, you know, relatively short career in the climate world I think have shaped me pretty greatly in that respect.
BOB: So last question. We’ve established that your position and its formal component of public engagement is pretty rare in academics. How do we make these kinds of positions more prevalent? What has to change and who has to make these changes or advocate for these changes? What’s the pathway?
DANIEL: Yeah, as with many things in science the unfortunate reality is that the answer really does come down to money, and funding, and institutions being willing to pay for it.
BOB: I’m glad you didn’t say “death – we’re going to advance one death at a time,” but okay, if it’s just money… Go on.
DANIEL: Yeah – yeah. And I say that — I think it actually is on some level good news because it means that it isn’t an impossible task. Because, you know, money does exist, and money can be obtained, and reallocated, and reprioritized. And I think really what it is — one of the challenges is that there is–and certainly in the university – in the research university context–there is this very specific vision for what it means to be a professor, or to be on the tenure track. And this is sort of something that I would say arguably a majority of PhD students still either genuinely aspire to or are told, either directly or indirectly, that this is what they should aspire to. And what being a professor entails at a research university is essentially you have I think arguably three full-time jobs that you have one full-time job’s worth of time to do. And so the challenge is if you are teaching, and you are doing research, and you are mentoring students, then it is difficult to find the time to do something like science communication or outreach on a level that I think would be beneficial for more scientists to do. So one challenge is that not everybody is going tenure track anyway. Another challenge is that for those people who are interested in working in that capacity at a university, when you go that route there isn’t a lot of time for anything else. And so I think one option is that I think you could envision a new sort of tenure track position in a university context where instead of those three jobs that I just mentioned you could swap one of them out for science communication and outreach. So you’d still have three jobs for the price of one, but you might be able to have some more flexibility over how you devote some of that — how you devote some of your time. So that’s one model in the university context (inaudible) in this sort of existing tenure-track mode where things could be improved. But I think more realistically something that could reach more people more quickly might be more positions kind of like the one that I have now, which is a research science position which inherently has no teaching attached to it. I don’t directly supervise PhD students either. So in some ways it’s really just two jobs: it’s research and science outreach and communication. And in some ways that’s a lot more attractable. Because really there are a bunch of ways to fund scientists these days. There are obviously public federal grants that support a lot of scientists. But there’s also an increasing number of private organiza- of institutions and organizations that fund science as well. In my case the nature conservancy is a big supporter and a substantial partner in – not just in the science-communication side of things, but also in the research that I do as well. And so there may be a model moving forward for scientists who still do research — traditional, peer-reviewed, scientific research — but also either through whatever university or research institute that they’re attached to receive funding and sort of a go-ahead from their supervisors to engage in this sort of science communication. Or also the potential for sort of add-on funding. So maybe your research physician is two-thirds funded by a university because they want you to produce papers and do research. The other third of your time is potentially funded by some other entity that has a vested interest in science communication and outreach. And these sorts of things sort of could be melded together in a way that doesn’t actually change existing institutional structures all that much.
BOB: I like everything you’ve said, but what I didn’t like was the passive voice. Like, who has to make the push for this, or who are the agents of change do you think that will make this happen?
DANIEL: I think that’s a good point. I think ultimately the agents of change really are going to have to be those young and early-career scientists who are interested in actually engaging in this way. I think they’re going to have to be strong self-advocates, and they’re going to have to be willing to take some risks and try and carve this out from existing institutional structures, and existing funding bodies. And I think it is possible — it is do able. I know that, you know, it was not easy for me to do it. I got lucky.
I was very fortunate to be where — you know, in the right place at the right time. But it also was a matter of really pushing people to make it happen. And I think there is enough interest now in the community, and I think there are enough institutions who are willing to do more than just pay lip service to the importance of science communication. And so I think the potential’s there, but there’s going to be some activation energy required. So I think individual scientists who want to engage will have to be largely these agents of change, but it would be very helpful if more forward-thinking institutions — particularly smaller I think entities within larger organizations — were willing to take the leap as well, and to offer positions that specifically could accommodate this sort of arrangement right from the outset.
BOB: Daniel Swain, thanks so much for your time today. Wonderful to talk to you.
DANIEL: Thanks so much for the invitation.