ScienceOnline Climate

Ah, logistics. WiFi, websites, sponsors, speakers, travel, venues, sound, and food – planning a meeting means dozens of details need constant attention. And yet, if we’ve done our work well, these all fade into the background as an event comes to life. There’s something magical about creating a space for conversations to unfold and genuine connections to take root, and I am delighted to have been a part of what we created at ScienceOnline Climate.

ScioClimate, as we call it, was a conference that took place in Washington, D.C. August 15-17. Thanks to professional development support from COMPASS, I was able to join Jamie Vernon and Karyn Traphagen as a co-organizer. But ScioClimate is not over because it’s much more than just a meeting – it’s a community of people coalescing around issues of how we improve climate science conversations online. Our intent is to go far beyond tactical discussions about how to share research results, and instead to explore the art, science, rhetoric, politics, philosophy, emotion, and practicalities of tackling unprecedented global change.

Nothing sums up my experience at the event better than this tweet by Mark Westneat:

I had a lot of “wow” moments, and from the discussions I overheard, it sounded like I was not the only one. On topics ranging from making meaning from data and crafting stories to tracking conversations, building coalitions, and motivating behavior change, the conversations were somehow both dense and lively. So how that happen? First, the numbers:

The geek in me would love to keep going with the stats (we trended locally!, 4% of all participants were named Elizabeth!) but… so what? Really, what makes this worthwhile?

#scioClimate #scioNASA field trip

What else made it worthwhile? ScienceOnline Climate organized field trips. I got to go the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (talk about a group that knows how to communicate their science), and it was AMAZING. See our #scioNASA tweets and more photos in our Flickr gallery.

The purpose of ScienceOnline Climate is to learn from each other and tackle problems together. That sounds so cliché, so easy. It’s not. We take risks and make deliberate design choices to flatten hierarchies and support honest conversations, online and in person. I’ve talked before about the need to both support and challenge each other. For ScienceOnline Climate, we strove to make it OK to disagree vehemently, and to admit vulnerability, because we don’t believe there are easy answers. We do believe that people are ready to work hard, and perhaps most importantly, to work hard together.

From my previous posts, it’s pretty obvious that I’m convinced one important aspect of the work we need to do together involves applying the science of science communication. My co-organizer Jamie Vernon agrees, saying, “What I learned from organizing the ScienceOnline Climate conference is that there are lots of communicators eager to deliver their message about climate change to the public. Not only are they eager, they are looking for the most effective way to do this. But we won’t know if they are effective unless we approach it in a scientific way.”

As I mentioned at the end of the plenary I moderated, we have another opportunity to pursue this when the National Academy of Sciences is hosts the second Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication this September. At ScioClimate and since, I’ve been hearing healthy skepticism about whether this field is producing actionable knowledge, and whether the exchange of insight between theory and practice is flowing as it should – in both directions. Fair enough. My argument is that empirical data on questions of public attitudes and beliefs is essential, and that we must do our due diligence, even when the cross-disciplinary nature of the challenge gets hairy.

However, I can’t emphasize this strongly enough: We know the science can only take us so far. At ScioClimate, for example, we were delighted to explore and highlight the different ways that art – fashion, visual storytelling, music, gaming, and more – help us better understand and share climate science. We had a solemn screening of the film Chasing Ice and a rowdy night of talks at ThirstDC. But whatever the topic or mood, I found again and again that it was the amazing individuals that participated in this event that inspired me the most. I realized, more than anything, it’s the people that keep you going and it’s that feeling that lasts.

It seems I’m frequently working on these posts on the flight home, and there’s something that feels very right about using the space and unique solitude of travel to reflect upon an experience. I’m not embarrassed to tell you this: My head is spinning and my heart is full. There’s so much to do, so I’ll end this post like I said goodbye at the end of the last session:

“Stone crumbles, wood rots. People, well, they die.
But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.
If you can change the way people think, the way they see themselves, the way they see the world – you can change the way people live their lives. That’s the only lasting thing you can create.”

from Chuck Pahlaniuk’s Choke

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About Liz Neeley

Liz was an Assistant Director of Science Outreach at COMPASS.

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