Making Your Scientific Voice Heard: Communicating Science and Increasing the Impact of Your Research
November 5, 2015
By Susanna Fuller, Heather Grant, Julia K. Baum
Who knows about your scientific discoveries? If the answer is only you, your co-authors, and your peers, chances are you are missing out on opportunities for sharing your science. Although scientists are increasingly encouraged to communicate their findings ‘beyond the ivory tower’, many wonder when and how to do so. Certainly not all scientific findings will be compelling or relevant to the general public, but many studies–whether they change the way we think about the world around us, deepen our understanding of nature, or have direct policy relevance–are of interest, and it is important to recognize and capitalize on these opportunities for sharing our science with the public when they arise.
Here, we outline the different approaches we took to publicize our recent Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences (CJFAS) paper “Missing the safety net: Evidence for inconsistent and insufficient management of at risk marine fishes in Canada.” Because our research had policy implications, and because species at risk are of interest to the general public, we made a concerted effort to use multiple communications tools to broadcast our results.
Many authors have published on the failure of Canada to adequately protect marine species at risk (see references in “Missing the Safety Net”), and environmental non-government organizations (ENGOs) have used science in legal cases where the Canadian Species at Risk Act (SARA) is not being adequately applied, particularly around the identification and protection of critical habitat for SARA listed species. But our new paper is the first to quantify the time species spend from being designated as at risk to a decision being made on protection, and to quantify protective measures for marine fish under the Canadian Fisheries Act. We decided that because we were analyzing information related to public fisheries policy and implementation, the results of the study needed to be communicated more broadly than the journal publication itself.
In making the decision to broadcast this information, we first thought about the target audiences. Who were we trying to influence by publishing this information outside of academia? Why did we want to get their attention?
Obviously, an important part of our target audience were the fisheries resource managers, Species at Risk (SAR) staff at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), and fisheries scientists who have the most immediate influence on fisheries policy and management decisions. As we were researching this paper, we presented early results to staff at DFO, to get their feedback but also to ensure that when the paper came out, they already understood its implications. By bringing their attention to the lack of protection of the species we studied and highlighting the opportunities that exist to rectify this, we hoped to create a dialogue about how the situation could be improved.
We know from experience that policy makers and government staff are not likely to read an entire scientific paper, though they may be interested in the results. We therefore distilled all the information that would be relevant to a resource manager into a visually pleasing four-pager, highlighting our methodology, key findings and providing recommendations for moving forward. Upon publication of the paper, we emailed out the paper as well as the supporting documents.
We also produced an infographic to simply and visually present some of the most interesting findings from the paper, and to tell a story about the results that would be compelling to anyone reading it. In developing the infographic, we decided that the most interesting narrative was one that described the journey of species-at-risk through the process of being considered for listing through the Species at Risk Act, and where that process is falling short.
We also recognized that the status and protection of endangered species is something that a large portion of the population will be interested in, to some degree. Canada’s fisheries are a public resource and as such, the public should be informed and engaged in how they are managed. The public certainly has the ability to influence policy, but only if they understand how it works (or in this case, doesn’t work).
Infographics are a great tool for relating results to media, most of whom are working with limited time and need to be able to quickly absorb and understand key points. They are particularly useful on social media, where posts that include photos generate considerably more interactions than those that do not. From the infographic, we pulled out some of the more interesting graphics and turned them into independent, easily shareable images that linked back to a website where more information could be found.
The four-pager and the infographic contained different information and were carefully targeted at different audiences. Both communications pieces were derived directly from the paper, and contain peer-reviewed information.
There are a few ways to engage the public, typically through traditional news media and social media–both tend to target different groups of people and illicit different responses from the public. To reach the public, we circulated a press release about our study and distributed it to trusted journalists prior to the publication of the CJFAS article, in order to give them time to interview us and write a story on the piece that could be released at the same time as the CJFAS online publication date. This led to popular science stories in iPOLITICS, on the CBC website, CBC radio “World at Six” and in MacLean’s magazine, as well as a Quirks and Quarks interview with Bob McDonald, and mentioned in Bob MacDonald’s blog as part of larger piece on ocean health and fisheries.
There continues to be a fine line (and active discussion!) on the role of science in informing policy vs. influencing policy. We strongly believe, however, that there is nothing controversial about honest, objective, and broad communication of scientific discoveries, and that rather than shying away from sharing their science with the public, scientists have a professional responsibility to do so. It benefits us all to have an informed public and informed decision making, and scientists have a key role to play in ensuring that their research is well communicated, beyond the journal.
Susanna Fuller is the Marine Conservation Coordinator at the Halifax based Ecology Action Centre. She has been working in the science-policy interface for the past decade, seeking better science based decision making for the worlds ocean. She works on local issues in Nova Scotia, as well as on national policy implementation. Susanna is an active member of the High Seas Alliance and Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, both working towards improved protection of ecosystems that are out of sight and often out of mind. She received her BSc from McGill University and her PhD from Dalhousie University. She has been involved in the implementation of both domestic and international policy to protect deep sea coral and sponge ecosystems, and most recently has been interested in assessing how Canadian fisheries and oceans policies are being used to protect marine ecosystem, in the face of increasing threats including fishing and climate change impacts.
Julia Baum is an Assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Victoria, Canada. She received her BSc from McGill University, and her MSc and PhD from Dalhousie University, all in Biology. Julia subsequently held a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, followed by a Schmidt Ocean Institute postdoctoral fellowship at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara. An emerging leader in marine ecology and conservation biology, Julia is known for her research documenting precipitous declines in shark populations stemming from overfishing. She has conducted field research in eleven countries, including the Republic of Kiribati, the location of her current coral reef field program. Julia's research focuses on understanding the impact of anthropogenic disturbances, from exploitation to climate change, on marine populations and what the broader consequences of these changes are for marine community structure and function, including the ecosystem services upon which our society relies. Her research has direct relevance to ocean resource management, conservation, and policy.
Heather Grant has been working at the Ecology Action Centre since 2012 as Marine Communications Campaigner. She specializes in communicating science and policy in a way that is accessible to the public in order to further campaign goals and raise awareness of marine conservation and fisheries issues in Canada. She has been concerned about the status of large pelagic species like sharks and tuna since a young age and enjoys sharing her knowledge with others. She graduated from Dalhousie University in 2011 with a B. Sc. in Marine Biology and a minor in Environmental Science.