How researchers get heard
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TTLT: Presenting Science vs. Creating a Campaign

The monarch butterfly is in trouble — in large part because development is chewing up its habitat, including that of its feeding and host plants (milkweed) across North America.

Just to stabilize its population, the monarch needs an “additional 1.8 billion stems of milkweed,” according to Abigail Derby Lewis of Chicago’s Field Museum and Adele Simmons, a philanthropist, writing in a recent Chicago Tribune op-ed.

One point eight billion doesn’t just seem like a lot of milkweed. It seems like a revolution. Where’s all that milkweed — and are all those milkweed growers — going to come from?

Chicago’s corporate campuses would make a good start, argue Derby Lewis and Simmons. Theirs is a convincing, science-based op-ed. But it’s not quite compelling — for reasons that science alone can’t provide and that scientists often don’t understand, and therefore are worth studying.

It comes down to this: science alone — presented without specific benefits for people to taking action and without a campaign to direct that action — rarely produces action.

Let’s map what Derby Lewis and Simmons wrote against my standard op-ed template:

A) There’s a Problem in the World and We Need to Fix It

Monarchs are an iconic part of the upper Midwest summers, and are dependent on habitats that grow easily in urban environments. But those habitats have declined precipitously over the last two decades.

B) Why Hasn’t the Problem Been Solved to Date?

People aren’t thinking about cities as havens of green space, particularly for monarchs. But that perception is wrong—Field Museum scientists, write Derby Lewis and Simmons, have found that “urban landscapes can contribute nearly one-third of the additional milkweed stems needed to support monarchs.” Solving the problem requires fixing the perception.

C) The Solution

Corporate campuses across Chicago have enough space to plant nearly 200,000 stems of milkweed, say Derby Lewis and Simmons. And the planting offers myriad benefits for those corporations and their employees — from “less-energy intensive management than…traditional manicured landscapes” to flood prevention, carbon sequestration and the benefits often cited of allowing people to connect directly with wildlife and native flora.

D) Any Obstacles to the Solution?

These are small-scale plantings, so any sense that they’re adding up to something larger has to come from a deliberate movement that also inspires others to ask.

E) Call to Action and Wrap

Chicago can be a leader for other cities in the effort to save monarchs as well as an inspiration for its citizens.

So, good structure; good evidence. But here’s how this op-ed could have been even better:

  • 200,000 additional milkweed stems sounds like a lot on its own — but not when compared to the need for 1.8 billion total. The authors need to offer a way to make the math add up more convincingly.
  • A multi-city effort is the obvious path to convincing math — and Derby Lewis is the project lead on such an effort, the Urban Monarch Conservation Design. Unfortunately, that initiative isn’t mentioned in the piece, only linked to in her tagline. As a result, the op-ed makes it seem as if corporations — both in Chicago and elsewhere — need to self-organize to make this monarch movement a reality…which is far less likely than joining an already existing initiative.
  • The cost-savings case for milkweed landscapes over a more manicured campus needs an example with hard numbers. Civic pride is nice, but nothing helps a corporate executive explain to a visitor (and recruit them to the effort) why the campus looks like it needs a mow like the dollars saved it . 

An iconic species in trouble and a scientific case that it can be saved are convincing…but usually not compelling.

Add a) specific examples with cost savings, and b) an already swelling movement that your target audience can easily join, and you’re much closer.

Science convinces. Science nested inside a campaign that directs and concentrates action — that compels.