Science Policy & Funding Opinion

Engaging the Public Through Writing an Op-Ed

Scientist-authored opinion articles provide scientists a way to directly connect with the general public.

By Chris Labosier, Laiyin Zhu, and Steven Quiring

In May, prior to the start of the 2012 hurricane season, AGU asked us to write an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle on the importance of funding hurricane research. We were excited to be asked and pleased that AGU facilitated the process by providing us with some guidance on writing the op-ed. Given the impact that Hurricane Ike had in Texas just a few years ago, we felt it was important to remind the citizens of the greater Houston metropolitan area of the societal benefits of funding hurricane research. Thanks to the assistance of AGU staff, writing the article required only a few hours of time.

Our op-ed was published in the print edition of the Houston Chronicle on 1 June 2012, the official start of the hurricane season (http://www.chron.com/default/article/Tight-budgets-posing-threat-to-Texas-hurricane-3600363.php). It was picked up by the media relations office in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University and featured on the college’s Web site in the dean’s biweekly briefing and on its Facebook page. As a result, the op-ed reached a large and diverse audience.

After writing the op-ed, the three of us reflected on the process. We discussed how we often feel we should remain removed from issues pertaining to policy, economics, and society. We typically stick to science and to communicating with fellow scientists. This passive approach is also reinforced by the system under which we operate. Faculty and graduate students in our department do not get credit for outreach activities such as communicating with the public. While this is status quo in our department (and to some extent in the discipline at large), this raises an important question: Whose job is it to communicate scientific findings and the important connections between science and society?

In Texas it has become obvious that we cannot rely on others to support and publicize the relevant research that is being done at universities in the state. For example, scientific research conducted at academic institutions has come under attack from organizations such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation (http://www.texaspolicy.com/sites/default/files/documents/2011-update-PP10-IsAcademicResearchGoodInvestment-ROdonnell.pdf) that see it as esoteric and wasteful. We believe that as scientists we have a responsibility to objectively communicate the results of our research and to have open and honest discussions with citizens. If we remain silent on the issues that our research addresses, then we lose out on an opportunity to help inform the public. Writing an op-ed (and other forms of outreach) promote dialogue. The public has a chance to learn about research that is often funded, at least in part, by tax dollars, and scientists have the opportunity to understand how to make our research more relevant and responsive to societal needs. This dialogue can also allow us to answer questions and correct misconceptions about our research.

We want to take this opportunity to encourage all scientists to actively seek opportunities to communicate with the general public. There are numerous ways to do this—writing an op-ed is one example, but scientists could also speak to local schools and community groups. While such efforts require an investment of time, the benefits are significant.

The erosion of the value placed on science (and scientists) that we have seen in Texas may reflect a broader trend in American discourse. Perhaps scientists deserve some of the blame because we have relied on others to tell our story. Without scientists’ involvement in communicating how science benefits society, it is quite possible that our message will be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Now is the time to take ownership and to engage the broader community.

—Chris Labosier, Laiyin Zhu, and Steven Quiring, Department of Geography, Texas A&M University, College Station

Citation: Labosier, C., L. Zhu, and S. Quiring, (2012), Engaging the public through writing an op-ed, Eos Trans. AGU, 93(40), 389, doi:10.1029/2012EO400008. Published on 2 October 2012.

© 2012. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.