Faith Kearns: Getting to the Heart of Science Communication
- Running time: 50:34
- Faith’s bio page and her podcast Water Talk.
- Faith’s new Island Press book Getting to the Heart of Science Communication.
- Her interview with Grist on why the conventional wisdom on how to talk about climate change is wrong.
- Faith highlights these people as science communicators doing practice-based work:
- Laura Snell and her work with wild horses in northeastern CA;
- Sarah Watson and her work with sea level rise in the Carolinas.
- Gale Silverstein – lawyer and Faith’s good friend who triggered her focus on relationship-centered work.
- Yanna Lambrindou – anthropologist who pushed Faith to think about the ethical implications of her work.
- Fisheries scientist Sarika Cullis-Suzuki, whose experience presenting at the U.N.is described in Faith’s book.
- ICYM the 70s and 80s: learn about famous astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan.
- The U.S. Land-Grant System and the Cooperative Extension System are two places Faith mentions relational work being done.
- The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund – the organization you can call if you’re being targeted for speaking out as a climate scientist.
- Sarah Myhre, whom Faith quotes in her book as saying that 80% of the time, trying to communicate science will have negative consequences for your career.
- Faith’s first science communications job was with the Ecological Society of America
- Linda Mendez – the scholar Faith attributes her understanding of discursive power.
Daniël Lakens: Red Teams for Research?
BOB LALASZ, SCIENCE + STORY
FAITH KEARNS INTERVIEW
START (FAITH KEARNS INTERVIEW)
BOB: This is Science Plus Story, I’m Bob Lalasz. On today’s show, promoting new papers, giving talks, doing briefings and interviews with journalists and decisionmakers. That’s what science communications is all about, isn’t it? My guest today, Faith Kearns, is a scientist and a science communication practitioner whose new book, Getting to the Heart of Science Communications: a Guide to Effective Engagement, makes the case that in a world where science is increasingly about conflict communicating science is all about human relationships, not clarity and authority.
FAITH: All of the training around messaging and things like that are useful in certain settings, but there are many settings in which it’s counterproductive to get very focused on the thing that I need to say, as opposed to trying to really be in relationship with people and understand what it is that they are looking for. And that’s – those are just – they’re very different skillsets.
BOB: Coming up, I talk with Faith about science communications as conflict, science communications as risky for those who practice it, and science communications as often beside the point.
BOB: Faith Kearns, welcome to Science Plus Story, and congratulations on your new book.
FAITH: Thank you so much, Bob. Thank you for having me. Thank you for taking the time to read the book. And also I’m just really happy that you’re doing this podcast and sort of creating the space for these kinds of conversations that don’t traditionally have a home. So I’m very grateful to be here with you today.
BOB: I’m grateful to have you as a guest. What I’d say about this book is it’s essential reading for anybody who’s interested in science communications. It’s a very hopeful book, and also at times a very depressing book. Possibly the most hopeful and depressing book you’ll read this year, if you’re interested in (sci-comm). Let’s start with the story you talk about what changed your mind about conventional science communications. You tell this story about – you’re talking about research and wildfires and how to build houses to withstand them to a community that had been traumatized by wildfires… Well, why don’t you tell the story.
FAITH: Sure. So it was the summer – or I guess the fall of 2008, and I was working at a wildfire research center at UC Berkeley. And two of my colleagues and I were in a small town in northern California where we were participating in what’s called a “Fire Safety Demonstration Day,” kind of a bit like a day at the county fair. And we were first presenting some of the work we were doing that at the time was controversial in a way that’s interesting to reflect on, that it was just around the idea that you could build houses to withstand wildfire, or at least reduce your risk during a wildfire. And while that’s more commonly talked about today, at the time it was very challenging. And part of what had happened was that, you know, we just presented this information about our research, and the mood in the room I noticed as shifting while one of my colleagues was speaking. And afterward a man that either was sitting near me or sought me out, I’m not sure which, came up and was kind enough–and now when I look back on it, just extremely generous–in being willing to share his feelings with me, which were that, you know, that he was – he had been saddened and frustrated that we were talking about issues around evacuation and things that it turned out none of us had stopped to consider that that community had just been through a massive wildfire event. And that – earlier that summer, 2008, there was a huge wildfire in the Big Sur area, and about five days later a complex of fires had broken out in Mendocino County to the north. And there was – again, this is a story that sounds very familiar today, but at the time was unusual. There was a lot of controversy about where the firefighting capacity was going. And so people up north were worried they just didn’t have enough firefighters. Because there were also 30 other wildfires burning around that state during that same time period. And so that foregrounds a lot of where we are today in that this man just sort of said, you know, in essence, “The way you presented this information was not sensitive to what our community has just been through.” And it made me feel sad, it made me feel actually guilty that I hadn’t prepared more, as well. And I sat and I listened to him, and it took me probably two years to fully process what he was saying to me, and to really integrate it. I took it on as critique that I wanted to take seriously, but it was later that I sort of understood that he had been describing to me that they had been through a very traumatic event. And we were there in this very sort of factual way saying, “You could’ve prevented that.” That was how he heard it. And so, you know, that just – to me it changed my entire orientation to my work, because it made me realize that not paying attention to the context that you’re going into can actually be really harmful to your work. And not only that, but to the people who your work will ultimately impact.
BOB: So in talking about the book, your new book, you say that this book is designed to “provide an alternative to the convention science communication conversation of the last few decades, which focused mainly on helping scientists connect with journalists and decisionmakers.” So in the context of what you just told us, this story of how convention science communication actually retraumatized this gentleman and this community, what would you say is wrong with that focus, that convention science-communication focus of performance? How do you think it leads to outcomes like the one you were just talking about where the communication isn’t enlightening, it’s actually exclusionary or even traumatizing?
FAITH: Yeah, so this is a – you know, it’s an interesting tightrope to walk. I feel like, you know, I don’t want to say that that work focused on helping scientists be more comfortable; talking with journalists is not useful. I think it is, particularly at a very beginner stage of becoming a science communicator. What I see is just that that has often been seen as the whole shebang. And what I am trying to argue for is that we need a much bigger tent. I’m not trying to argue that my way is the only way, but just that we need more room to think about multiple science communications, so to speak. So there isn’t just one way of doing it, and that has been to me a problem that has somewhat plagued the field is that there’s been a lot of arguing over the way, instead of this sense that depending on the way you’re working, where you’re working, who you are, what your goals are, that there are many ways to do science communication practice. The other thing I would say is that a lot of those early pieces of advice were very much coming from journalists. If you look at the landscape of the books that have been written about science communication, they’re largely by journalists sort of saying, “Here’s how you can better interact with us.” And again, I think that’s fine. That’s a piece of work, but it’s not the only one. And so what I have found as somebody who works–and we can talk a little bit more about this–but I – you know, I work in a cooperative extension context, which is part of the land grant system in the United States. And I do very place-based work in a way that it’s not possible for me to kind of come into a place where I don’t know people, say something, and then leave. And so I’m constantly cognizant of my position in the landscape of who’s talking about water, who’s talking about fire. And so what I have found ultimately is that all of the training around messaging and things like that are useful in certain settings, but there are many settings in which it’s counterproductive to get very focused on the thing that I need to say, as opposed to trying to really be in relationship with people and understand what it is that they are looking for. And those are just – they’re very different skillsets, you know? And I know we’ll talk a little bit more about this, but I think there’s also depending on the person that you are, which that set of work around connecting with journalists has tended to be fairly agnostic to the identity of practitioners. And the truth is just not all of us can walk into the same settings with the same level of authority, and not all of us want to, right? So I think it just fundamentally is a different kind of science communication practice.
BOB: Right. So you – let’s talk about who a practitioner is, because I think a lot of people think about, well, they think about science communication as the scientist who’s an academic, who probably has tenure, who’s published a couple of books and lots of papers and is getting called by a journalist, or is getting called in to testify to a legislative body. And there is the presumption of authority and expertise, and that sets up a clearly one-way dynamic where I’m going to deliver my expertise to you, and I just need to do that clearly so that you understand what you need to do after I’ve delivered that expertise. But this book, the way you’ve structured this book, one of the really interesting things about it, is that you bring in a lot of voices and you say, “This is not a research book, it’s not a lit-review, but I want to capture some of the grounded, lived experiences of practitioners.” So let’s talk about a typical – who are these typical science communicators? You know, what do they do? Who are they? How old are they? What’s their training, right? Talk about some of those people who are not the person I’ve just described, but are science communicators nonetheless working much closer to the ground, closer with communities.
FAITH: Yeah, so I try to be very specific in the book about talking about practice-based work and what it means to be a science communication practitioner versus a science communication researcher, or even in many ways an academic researcher who does media interviews on occasion. So I’m really talking about people who do science communication work for a living. And, you know, one set of the folks in the book, which you, you know, allude to their being many stories, I would say, you know, there’s around 100 people in the book. Some have much longer stories than others, but I tried to get at (a very varied) experiences that people have. But I would generally group them into folks who, like me, work in extension settings. So either cooperative extension or (Sea Grant), things like that where your job is really around the idea that you’re [quote, unquote] “extending” research information to the users of that information. And that again sounds like it can be this very delivery [LAUGHTER] pipeline-focused thing. But in many ways once you’re in those settings there’s no way for it to be that. You know, people are asking you questions. They often know the place that you’re talking about much better than you do. Even in a state that I feel very comfortable in, California, there – you know, people are privy to information I’ll never know because I don’t live there. So there’s those kinds of stories. And those kinds of topics that people are working on can be anything from, you know, one of the stories is a colleague of mine, Laura Snell, who works with wild horses in northeastern California. Another colleague of mine works on sea-level rise in Charleston, South Carolina. That’s Sarah Watson who’s with Sea Grant. So that’s one set of folks. I am talking to a lot of graduate students who are doing all sorts of innovative and interesting science communication practice work, whether it’s teaching things like empathy-based science communication workshops, or, like, Evelyn Valdez-Ward and her colleagues who started something called “Reclaiming STEM” that is a sort of science communication and policy effort that’s trying to get around some of the same things that I am also trying to get around. They’re very focused on sort of younger folks with varying degrees of different identities. And then there are folks who work for government. And I will say that government science communication practice is somewhat hard to get at because people are often bound by all sorts of restrictions when it comes to what their agencies allow. And so I’ve got a story or two in there, but those are – they’re just hard to capture because of a lot of the concerns people have about their jobs.
BOB: The big question I have is what does relational work actually look like, right? Because at some point when you – most scientists I’ve worked with, they’ll say, “Yeah, I need to listen more. Yeah, there needs to be more dialogue.” But at some point you push them far enough and they go, “But I don’t want to give up my position of authority as a scientist. This is a relationship where I am the scientist and they are the non-scientist, and I have something approaching the truth that needs to be delivered to them,” right? “And I need to gain their trust. I need to listen.” But it seems all in service of getting to that point where eventually at some point the listener accepts the – you know, becomes the audience, right? The community becomes the audience. So you’re putting forward a different paradigm, and you’re being insistent about it. So what does this relational work actually look like where you’re an equal as a scientist to the community? Like, how do you give in and what does the work actually look like?
FAITH: Yeah, so thank you for that question. I would just back up a second to say that the way that I got interested in relational or relationship-centered work was a bit roundabout in that I basically came up against these limitations as somebody who is a practitioner. And there wasn’t a lot of the sort of science-communication work that was extremely relevant to my particular setting. And so one thing that triggered me getting interested in this was talking to a dear friend of mine, Gail Silverstein, who is a lawyer, and starting to understand that–she now teaches clinical law at U.S. Hastings–and beginning to understand that her practice as a lawyer actually was very similar in some ways to my practice as a science communicator. And then I sort of – based on interactions with her I sort of delved into other practice-based fields, including, you know, medicine and psychotherapy. And I will say that another thing that really triggered this for me was just my own therapy process, where that relationship that I had in the therapy process was so transformational, and I started to wonder about why. And so it was a coincidence of things that happened within a couple years of each other that led to me really focusing in on what was in the literature in law, medicine, psychotherapy, fields like that, from a practice perspective. And a lot of it was centered on relationship work. And so I just – I don’t know. I was looking for answers. I was looking at how to try to do my job better. And it just turned out that reading things about relationship-centered medicine, relationship-centered law, resonated more strongly with me than anything I was reading in the science communication field. And so what I’m talking about when I lay out what I think are the tools of the kind of science communication practice I’m trying to get at, they focus on this idea of relationship. And then I focus in on a few I would say starting tools for thinking about being in relationship. And those are listening, working with conflict, and understanding trauma. And so some of the big tenants of that work across fields, the relationship work across fields, has to do with things like questioning authority and power, questioning expertise. And really what you’re thinking, how I think about it is I myself am not standing outside of the work. I’m not there to say to people, “I’m diagnosing you and here’s the ten things that you need to do;” I’m trying to say, “I’m here in this. I know some things. You know some things. How are we going to proceed?” And that kind of work just – it requires an entirely different set of skills that might be grouped under what people would understand as “emotional intelligence” bucket, right? But I also think that–and throughout the book you’ll see words from the anthropologists colleague of mine, Yanna Lambrinidou, who really pushed me and still pushes me to think further about the ethical implications of this kind of work. Because I think she would speak to kind of what–I won’t put words in her mouth–but the way that she has helped me to see that kind of thing is that there is an inherent tension in this work in that, you know, you are trying to bring what you know. And even the phrase that you used, right, which is that, “The scientist is trying to being seen as trustworthy”–I don’t know exactly how you said it–but the implication is somehow that the work isn’t just fundamentally being trustworthy [LAUGHTER]. And so the work of being fundamentally trustworthy is deeper than any – you know, it’s deep, deep work. And I strive to do it every day, you know? And so I think the way that looks at any point in time is that I do spend much more time listening, whether that means through reading or in conversation with people, than I do talking about things. I try to feel my way through conflict, you know, because that’s something that at least for the issues I work on and the place I work on is an ever-present issue, and instead of trying to squash it, you know? I think often when I watched especially the early climate communication, a lot of it was around either fighting back in a sort of conflict situation, or trying to just sort of squash that conflict through scientific authority. And instead kind of trying to work with that conflict, to let it exist, to see what lessons it has to teach you, while also not getting hurt too badly in that process, is, you know, it’s a life’s work.
BOB: Right. Let’s talk about the conflict a little bit in sci-comm. Because the reframing you do in the book around conflict I found very convincing. You said basically that conflict is now intrinsic and probably intractable to many scientific issues, right? It’s not that we can avoid the conflict around climate change, vaccines, GMOs, etc., but that we’re trying to resolve it… The dysfunction is we’re trying to resolve it as a science communication or behavior change challenge, rather than a relational challenge that thinks about how conflict can be a driver of change. Okay, I really like the sound of that. What does it mean in practice? What does it look like in practice? Can you give a good example?
FAITH: Sure, I have so many because, you know, I work on very controversial issues. And so I think, you know, I’ll speak to one that I know very well which is water, particularly in the western U.S., in the State of California. And I find a very interesting dialogue, and it’s similar to climate change and other things, where you sort of see this sense that we have to put aside conflict, that really the answer lies in collaboration. And so that’s – you know, that’s just one way that that gets handled. And I find that particular way really interesting because in some ways it reminds me of those, like, dinner table conversations where, at least in my household, you know, my grandmother was always, like, “We’re not talking politics at the dinner table,” right? So there’s this way that you kind of are trying to say that the conflict itself is a problem. And so instead what I have tried to do is when there is a conflict is to really look at what that conflict is telling us, what – you know? Because the conflict is often about an actual issue that people are trying to raise, and it can be seen as conflict, when in reality it’s just part of how you get to – it’s part of how you work and it’s part of how you hopefully move forward. And I think if you try to squash it too soon you can leave a lot of people behind, those bad feelings can fester. And some people will feel like that conflict was solved when it really wasn’t. And then I think the work you do is perhaps not as robust to future critique or problem. So that’s just one way. I mean, I think there are many, many ways it plays out.
BOB: Okay. So it makes sense that including relational considerations, being more open to the human side of the work that we’re doing, would make it more effective. But is that really the point of this approach? Or is it just one of the points of this approach?
FAITH: I would say it’s one of the points. I find the challenge of even defining “effective” to be a really hard one. You know, what seems effective to me versus to the people that I work with, those would be different answers . And so I think that part of what I’m trying to get at is I have definitely seen things be incredibly ineffective, you know? And part of at least the equation is also how effective and sort of agential do you feel as a science communication practitioner in your own work? And so that relationship work to me at least – at the very least helps me to feel more effective and agential in what I’m doing, you know? And then you could start to look at what does it – you know, how do other people perceive effectiveness? And signs for me that I use are, you know, I have a set of people that I consider myself quite accountable to, and they are, you know, a broad swath of people–water activists, artists, you know, people that I really have decided to make myself accountable to. And so that for me at the end of the day is where my effectiveness is, is am I able to stay in my own integrity around the people, and the work, and the morals, and the values that I have committed to?
BOB: You tell a story in the book about a fisheries scientist who’s presenting at the UN. She’s done research on regional fisheries management organizations. And she’s presenting this research and the UN delegates are just picking it apart. And they are just not receptive at all to the point of this research. And she finishes and she feels guilty because she’s obviously upset them. They did not want to hear what she had to say. But she’s also upset because these people had refused to engage with her actual research. So she’s feeling something that science communicators feel a lot of, right? Like, “Hey, you weren’t listening, but God, I really wish I could’ve reached you. What did I do wrong here?” And you say this is a perfect example of how this is not just a communication challenge, it’s a relationship challenge. But how do you do relationship work in the setting of the United Nations, for example, where you have to get in a…? It is a formalized environment where it’s – it is made for delivering information and you’re going to get missiles shot at you in something like that. So where does the relationship – where does that frame, that paradigm, in your (prescription) where would it come in?
FAITH: Yeah, so this is a very interesting story, and one that I’m glad that you asked about. So Sarika Cullis-Suzuki is someone who–I will tell you as an inside to this story that I was present for this event [LAUGHTER]–and so Sarika – I was working for a large NGO and Sarika had been invited to present on her work. And she was very young at the time, and it was very interesting when I spoke to her last year in terms of reflecting on that same story about ten years later. And so, you know, I think she gets to the absolute crux of that scenario, which is that she was brought in to talk about a specific set of work, you know, in hopes that it would sway – you know, would influence the negotiations in some way, shape, or form. And so there’s a larger context there–she was one of three people doing that. And the setup was quite intense, and it’s really interesting to me because she sort of said to me that she wished that somebody had coached her a little bit more on what that situation was going to be like. And the interesting thing to me is I remember coaching her, but I think that the excitement, right, and just the nervousness around doing that kind of presentation… And she speaks to it, you know? I was at the UN and I’m looking at all these, you know, nameplates and pictures, and the whole event is a little intoxicating, while also being really stressful. And so in that particular setting, you know, the advice I would probably give if this were now would be to try to have a little bit more of a conversation with the people who had invited me, to spend some time perhaps talking with the co-panelists. So it’s not necessarily that, say, for example, she’s going to be in relationship with that diplomat from – or the negotiator from one of the Nordic countries that she was speaking with, but more that – I think that possibilities and that scenario–and I’m not critiquing Sarika at all–would be to think about how to bolster yourself in the context of the other people presenting, and how you’re going to handle those kinds of critiques. And I think if Sarika were to do that work again–this was her first time–she herself would also have a totally different approach to it. And so sometimes what you’re also trying to do is not even just develop relationship directly with people who you might be in conflict with, but be in solidarity with the other people who are also doing that work, right? And that’s something that I think we sometimes just – we don’t even think about. We think of science communication–and this is an unfortunate thing that I hope to see change in my lifetime–but there has been such a focus on the sort of – what I would call a “star syndrome” in science communication. And you’ll often see people refer to it in the context of somebody like Carl Sagan, right? Like for whatever reason it has very much been seen as an individual effort with individual reward. And I think where we have failed–and I didn’t get there strongly enough at the end of the book–was to say that we do need sort of a stronger collective voice. And so I think, you know, when I think about those situations it’s as much about the coalition building laterally as it is with whoever you think you’re in direct conflict with, if that makes sense. So that’s one way I would think about that situation now.
BOB: In the book you make the argument there have been critical moments throughout history where major societal transformation has forced changes in the sciences and science communications. And you feel like this is one of those critical moments. And you see that paradigm from the star system, the one-way performance seeding ground, to this more engaged, more communal, more relational communication paradigm. Where do you see that happening? How is it playing out? What are you seeing that I’m not seeing actually, because I’m not seeing it? But what are you seeing?
FAITH: Yeah, so I think, you know, it may be my – you know, my context where I am situated within academia, where I’m a non-tenure-track academic. And so I see some of it in that context. But I would say, you know, there is a massive change happening even within the research community around the idea of community-engaged research. Not that that work – and this is a point I try to make in the book is that this kind of work has been done in, say, the cooperative extension system, the land grant system. There are places this work has always taken place. But it has been so untied from that star model of science communication that we don’t even have a crosswalk to talk about it, which I’m hoping to start to establish more. Because people now feel like again we’re reinventing a wheel of community-engaged work, when – in some ways we are. There are ways that system also needs to be updated. But also there’s a lot to learn from it. And so I see it in conversations about coproduction, which is, you know, another way that people are trying to talk about research done in tandem with communities. And so, you know, again, because of my position I think I’m – I talk about research and science communication as tightly coupled in a way that I think somebody may be working in, say, a more informal education setting might not. You know, there’s always – I’m always trying to keep in mind museum folks and things like that. But where I see it the most is really just in this sense driven by social justice movements, you know, that we need to be doing things that are more in service of community. So I guess I see it everywhere I look. And it may be, you know, the folks you’re talking with that are more I think maybe in NGO settings and things, I’m not sure, Bob, but that it’s not as prevalent as it is… But I see that transformation taking place all over right now. I mean, it is – in the university setting it is what everybody is doing and talking about.
BOB: Okay. That’s really encouraging. Yet there are lots of negative consequences for – and risks for being a science communicator and doing science communication. You quote (Sarah Myhre), a climate scientist. She says, “Eighty percent of the time trying communicate science will have negative consequences for your scientific career,” right? It is risky, and you’re not–you make this argument–you’re not protected often by the institution for speaking about high-stakes subjects in the way that might upset various constituencies. So let’s talk about – first of all, about some of these negative consequences you’ve seen, either you’ve seen personally (inaudible) for colleagues or for yourself. And then how do we mitigate this risk? What would that mean for institutions like universities and NGOs and research centers to sort of make communications a little bit safer of an activity? So let’s start with the consequences.
FAITH: For me I more and more feel like so much of this work hinges on this particular question. Again, I think that the model has always been the sense that science communicators are tenured or tenure-track faculty, often at lead institutions with administrative leaders that are willing to back their, you know, sort of academic speech. And what I see more and more is that the people doing science communication work, the people who are drawn to it, are often bootstrapping their jobs in many ways, where I hear particularly on Twitter from some of the younger folks that they are – a lot of the science communication work they do is unpaid, you know, which is a whole other ball of wax. And then I think even within the people doing that work, whether it’s – you know, again, particularly in the academic setting, but also in the NGO settings I’ve been in, and government settings, it’s tense work. We’re working on things like, you know, climate change, and wildfire, or even things like COVID, where unbeknownst to you, right, [LAUGHTER] at least at first, you’re doing what you think is good, and valuable, and high-integrity work. And then suddenly you run afoul of – it can be all sorts of people. It can be a colleague who disagrees who has more power than you. It can be an administrator. It can be a funder. There are all sorts of ways that people can try to get you to not use your voice. I mean, that’s ultimately to me how I think about it these days is that, you know, when you start to gain some voice that people are listening to you will often face a pushback on that. And how successful somebody is in silencing you is a fact of your position. And I think we can’t be leaving it up to that anymore. And so what the solution is to me is still really up in the air, but I do think it looks like some collective effort that perhaps goes behind anyone’s individual workplace. And I think about, you know, when I look at academic cases where – or even government cases where people have been–I’ll use the word “censored,” even though it’s a loaded one–often the people who then can kind of intercede on your behalf tend to be professional societies will sometimes speak out for their members. Collectives of colleagues–whether that’s your colleagues at your workplace or outside of your workplace… And some of those efforts are effective, and some of them aren’t. There are also things like, say, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which is an organization that you can call when you’re being targeted as a climate scientist. And those are all great models, they’re just – they’re small. You know, and so I think as we think about science communication practitioners working outside of the setting of the university, or even within the university but not under tenure protections, and often on term appointments that are very easy to not renew for financial reasons, it just becomes very tenuous. And so – and as you noted, the folks doing the work are often more vulnerable by all sorts of, you know, factors, and the issues that we’re working on are just increasingly controversial. So to me that feels like a real collision, and the solution has to be collective. And that’s where, you know, not having a science communication sort of professional society I think – there’s pros and cons to having those. But it doesn’t allow you to even discuss what collective protection would look like.
BOB: Your book is the first book I’ve read that deals with this issue head-on. And in fact, I’ve not read any journal articles that have dealt with it either head-on. So has it been a complete blind spot in the academic community, the vulnerability of science communications as an activity and a profession? And if so is that a class issue? Is it a gender issue? Is it intersectional? Is it all these things?
FAITH: Yeah, it’s probably a little bit of all of the above. I mean, there has been work, a really small amount. But I have seen there was a study out of Canada that I won’t remember the authorship on now. But it was the first I’d seen that they were using the term I believe “public scholarship.” So I think in a parallel sort of way there’s science communication, which I view as – at this point as sort of a piece of public scholarship. You know, there are people doing public scholarship on all sorts of topics, and we’re sort of one of them. But I also think the history of public scholarship in certain ways is newer. And so under the guise of public scholarship I do think people are noticing that as more and more institutions, definitely universities, but I think others as well are calling for more public scholarship, that there is a way in which we then also have to take seriously the risk that that puts people at. And so this one study, you know, was an attempt to get universities to come up with an approach, right? But that’s limited in the science communication space because not everybody works for a university. And that’s why I’m trying to think about what are these larger collectives–again, I don’t know what those look like–but that could help? And then there are, you know, people like (inaudible) and others who have – Zeynep Tufekci – there are people who are talking about what, both formally and informally, kind of what can happen when you fun afoul of folks online or otherwise. There’s a lot of discussion within the journalism community certainly about what happens when journalists are targeted for the work that they’re doing. And so part of what I think has happened is that as I – as we’ve talked about, the fact that there’s been such a focus on tenured faculty as science communicators, and also that the people advising that work have been journalists, that there’s just been this gap around the actual who is doing this work. Because that’s – you know, that isn’t the purview of either one of those sets of folks. And so I think, you know, that’s where I felt strongly about writing a book about science communication from a practitioner’s perspective, because there’s just – there’s a whole world there that just doesn’t get addressed. And job precarity and its intersection with vitriol online and off is a scary proposition these days, it really is.
BOB: You mentioned journalism. You and I have had offline conversations about the – how intertwined the dominant idea – the dominant discourse around science communication and journalism (have) been, so intertwined, so symbiotic for decades. As journalism erodes and morphs into something less central, let’s say, to increasing numbers of people, does that dominant paradigm of sci-comm also erode? It’s always relied on journalism for scale. So what do you see as the future of, you know, science journalism in – and sci-comm?
FAITH: Yeah. Again, I think this is, you know, something I can only give a partial answer to because I see it from where I sit. But from where I started, you know, my first real true science communication job was for the Ecological Society of America, and which I started in 1996. And at that time, you know, 25 years ago, the main way – I spent a summer where all I did was read abstracts that were submitted for the Ecological Society’s annual meeting, choose the ones I thought might be most interesting to journalists, and write a press release about them trying to get interest, right? And so at that time that was a sort of easy thing to do. I got work covered in the New York Times, Discover Mag- like, it was – you know, it was just, like, okay, like, you know, it happened and that seemed to work. And then here we are now where, you know, we recently had a phone call institutionally with a few journalists and, you know, people were asking, “How do you get story ideas?” It’s, like, “Oh, on Twitter,” you know? And, you know, “Don’t write a press release, don’t email me, just Twitter-DM me,” or, you know, those ki… And I’m not saying that’s true for everybody, but I think, you know, the shift from those days of, like, incredibly formal [LAUGHTER], you know, is – it’s just a totally different ballgame. And so, yeah, I – what the future of it looks like I’m not sure. In some ways it’s gotten more interesting in that… You know, I talk with a lot of journalists in California, and in many ways we’re – we have different crafts for sure, but we’re interested in the same issues, and we’re in conversation about them in similar ways. It’s just – it isn’t – you know, you don’t – just like with the science communication side, you cannot just sort of go, “I work for elite institution X and here I am to save the day,” and the journalist can’t show up and say, “I work for elite newspaper whatever,” and, you know, and that that’s how it works. What I find is that, you know, there are folks that I would consider more on the sort of margins of both professions that are in conversation in ways that are sometimes uncomfortably competitive and sometimes really synergistic. And it’s a completely evolved landscape.
BOB: And comfortably competitive in what ways? Can you give an example?
FAITH: Sure. I mean, I think what’s interesting is when you take people who are really good public communicators who can do public scholarship… You know, there might’ve been a time when I, for example, would try in some way to get a journalist to be interested in a topic that I am also interested in. And anymore most of the time, unless it’s quite obvious, I end up feeling like I should just go ahead and write whatever that thing is, as opposed to relying on somebody else to do it. And I do that all the time. Because there’s just a whole set of issues that I think are incredibly relevant to the work I do that, you know, that I understand the pressures in the journalism world are intense. And so – and I don’t understand all of them. And so – but I also feel like I – you know, for science communicators who have the ability to also write science there’s a way that, you know, you do that. And it does raise issues around solidarity, around payment and things like that, you know, if you’re writing something that a freelance journalist might write. But I don’t think that’s true. I mean, often I will try to get folks interested, and if they’re not then I do feel like I – it’s something I will do myself.
BOB: It’s an interesting note that you end your book on, and it’s about how communication is actually a distraction sometimes from power. You say that climate change is an example of a topic where decades have been spent enhancing communication efforts by the science community that could perhaps have been better spent addressing its root causes. And discursive power isn’t enough to overcome power imbalances in other arenas, right? So I’m not sure what you were in when you wrote those lines. How do you feel about the agency of science communication? You’ve advanced this different alternative paradigm. What are you saying ultimately about science communication and power? Which one should we work on? Can we work on both at the same time, or are you saying communication, yes, but you really need to focus on power?
FAITH: Well, I would definitely say it’s (a) both. And I would also note that all credit to my good colleague (Linda Mendez), who did all of this really great work on power and has just graduated from UC Davis with a new position. And, you know, it was really in talking with her that some of these issues around power came into even sharper focus for me. And I think, you know, there are many ways to look at power and this is one. But I found her assessment of this idea of discursive power really interesting. And I think it’s something that many of us who do this work think about is just that it’s – you know, the communication piece has its limits. And so – and especially the way that we focused on it as an individual effort, as opposed to, again, working in collectives, working in solidarity in ways that might actually enhance the power – that discursive power [LAUGHTER]. But I think, you know, I find myself at a really critical point. It’s helpful for you to sort of note what mood I might’ve been in. You know, I should say that I finished this book during COVID, during a difficult political time. I handed the book in last July, so you might remember many of the things that were happening in early 2020. And so, you know, the mood is definitely – I was worried about the mood of it. But I also – I wouldn’t say my mood has particularly changed since that time, so I feel okay about it. I think we’re – I do think we’re in a time of reckoning. I do wonder what the future of the field is. I truly do. It was hard to write this without having some deep questions about what we’re doing, you know, what we’re working on here. And so when it comes to power in particular do I…? This is – I find myself saying this to people a lot. Science will always need to be communicated, right? Like there’s a scientific enterprise and we have to communicate about it. The question to me is just sort of – of how and what does that look like, and how satisfying is that work for people, how quickly does it burn them out or not? Can we protect them in the course of doing that work? And asking those questions does change the actual practice, too. So that’s – you know, I don’t have a crystal ball about it, but I do have a lot of questions.
BOB: Great note to end on. Faith, thanks so much for talking with me today, really appreciate it.
FAITH: Thank you Bob, I really appreciate your thoughtful questions today.
BOB: You can find show notes, a transcript of my chat with Faith, and more at our website, Scienceplusstory.com/podcast. If you liked the episode please rate or review us and tell a friend about us. Resonate Recordings engineers Science Plus Story. Mikhail Porro composed our theme music. I’m Bob Lalasz, thanks for listening.