In keynote address, Alley urges scientists to express value of their work

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Richard Alley has a message for scientists: It’s time to revamp the message.

In a keynote address to scientists and educators at the 2018 American Meteorological Society Conference, Alley said people may be losing their appreciation for the good they get from science, and it’s up to the scientific community to change that.

In a talk titled “Transforming Communication in the Environment Sciences: Some Thoughts from a Reluctant Participant,” the Evan Pugh University Professor and world-renowned geoscientist said scientists have a winning message, one that leads to better, healthier lives, economic gains and a cleaner environment.

But, he said, researchers are failing to fully articulate these gains to the public.

Take a 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center, which found that higher education no longer has bipartisan support. About 58 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning citizens say colleges have a negative effect on the country. About 19 percent of Democrats feel the same.

Alley gave the smartphone as a science success story. Without science and engineering, he said, it’s just sand, oil and rocks.

“They are absolutely essential for our day-to-day living,” Alley said. “Where did we get them? They came from public-private partnerships, build on university research with domestic and military applications … and I’m not convinced that all of our fellow citizens have that loaded anymore.”

Richard Alley

In a keynote address to scientists and educators at the 2018 American Meteorological Society Conference, world-renowned Penn State geoscientist Richard Alley urged scientists to communicate science using utility, unity, history and humanity.

Image: American Meteorological Society

He urged scientists to communicate the value of science using four approaches: Utility, unity, history and humanity.

On utility, Alley stressed the value of weather forecasting to the assembled meteorologists.

“The Galveston hurricane killed 8,000 people in 1900. There were a whole lot more lives on the line (in 2017) and Harvey didn’t. It killed 80,” Alley said. … “If the storm hits before the salt trucks get out, people die. And, yeah, you can make money by forecasting the weather properly but when you grow more food it doesn’t just make money, it feeds a hungry world. And ‘weather forecasts feed families’ is not on your logo. But weather forecasts do feed families.”

On unity, Alley cited a PBS documentary he worked on where a rear admiral, Houston mayor and Texas rancher talked about the impact of climate change and the value of renewable energy. It’s not just a message from the ivory tower, he said, many voices are acting in unison on important scientific issues.

On history, Alley pointed to more than a century of science illustrating CO2’s effect on the climate. He pulled from figures such as Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln extolling the virtues of renewable energy.

On humanity, Alley said the impact of countering climate change, outlined in a report which he co-authored from Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, could best be summed up in this tweetable message: “Efficient responses on climate and energy will give a larger economy with more jobs and greater national security in a cleaner environment more consistent with the golden rule.”

Saying that it’s cheaper for special interest groups to muddy the waters and avoid policy implications, Alley said scientists face an uphill battle, but one that can be won with a clear and concise message.

“Generating confusion is really cheap,” Alley said. “Helping people understand is more expensive.”

Alley said rallying our communities and our leaders will be key to advancing science and continuing the investment in science education.

“We have a big advantage because we really do help people,” Alley said. “At the point where our leaders, our preachers and our politicians realize that our science helps, it’s going to be a lot harder to confuse people because there will be a whole lot of voices saying this helps people, this helps the economy, this helps our future.”

Richard Alley

In a keynote address to scientists and educators at the 2018 American Meteorological Society Conference, world-renowned Penn State geoscientist Richard Alley urged scientists to become better communicators on the value of what they do.

Image: American Meteorological Society

AMS honors Alley

Just after his keynote address, Alley was made an honorary member of AMS.

“Our procedures insist that adding a new name to the roster of honorary members be as much of an honor to the society as it is for the individual,” said AMS President Roger Wakimoto, who praised Alley’s extensive public outreach and ability to explain science to the public.

Alley said it’s wonderful to be recognized by a group outside of his field.

“I’m deeply honored by the award,” he said. “I’m a geoscientist, so having great people from another field recognize my work is truly wonderful.”

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Last Updated February 14, 2018