Briefing Debrief: “California’s Changing Oceans” Scientists Jenn Caselle, Francis Chan, Tessa Hill, And Kristy Kroeker

On November 4, 2015, four eminent scientists came to Sacramento to deliver a briefing about our changing oceans. From ocean acidification to low oxygen zones, the scientists described the challenges that will confront California’s marine ecosystems in the years ahead. They also described how marine protected areas and long-term monitoring are informing our understanding of ocean change. Following the briefing, the scientists took a moment to reflect on the challenges and opportunities associated with bringing science to policymakers.

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Drs. Francis Chan, Tessa Hill, Kristy Kroeker, and Jenn Caselle with moderator William Craven and COMPASS Board Chair Michael Sutton speaking.

What has been your biggest challenge in communicating your science to policymakers?

Jenn Caselle (JC): The biggest challenge is distilling what can be complex issues down to a key message that policymakers can grip onto without ‘dumbing down’ the science. Policymakers are smart people, just busy, and they need a real, truthful message in a compact way.

Francis Chan (FC): One of the biggest challenges is knowing what to do once we’ve succeeded in bringing policymakers up to speed on the issues. For our meeting, it seemed that there was fairly rapid uptake and appreciation that ocean change was a huge issue, but when they wanted to know what actions we would advise, the conversation became more tenuous.

Tessa Hill (TH): Understanding the mechanisms and ‘levers’ that policymakers have to make decisions—what kind of information can we give them that will be useful? This is ultimately determined by what decisions and choices they are able to make. It is different than communicating to the general public, because policymakers’ questions and interests are geared towards action.

Kristy Kroeker (KK): One of the things that has been the most challenging for me is that we are still in a fairly early stage with ocean acidification research—so it is easy to raise the alarm bells but much harder to scientifically inform questions about what we can do. Another challenge is that my research is inherently complex, and it is challenging to simplify the message.

What impact did you have by doing this briefing?  Was it worth your time to make this trip? 

JC: Our day in Sacramento was well worth the effort. I learned so much about how business gets done at the government level. It opened my eyes to a whole new pathway to achieve environmental and conservation results. At the same time, I don’t think it’s reasonable for scientists to spend all of their time navigating these pathways on their own. That’s why the organization of COMPASS is so great. Definitely worth my time, and then some. I’m still excited about it!

FC: I think we were able to move the dial on priorities. I think it was worth my time but I also know that it is very hard to predict or track impacts.

TH: This was absolutely worth my time. It is hard to measure direct impact, but I do think it is a good idea to connect policymakers and scientists so that when questions arise, they can pick up the phone and ask them!

KK: The impact is hard to say at this point, but I think we raised awareness of the issues associated with ocean acidification among staffers and made ourselves accessible for continued conversations. I think our point about needing policymakers to inform our science in order to make it as useful as possible was heard loud and clear. I absolutely think it was worth my time to be involved. Ocean acidification, hypoxia, and global change are only going to become more important moving forward, and I think it is critical that we build relationships among scientists and policymakers now.

What piece of advice did you get, or wish you had gotten, before you met with legislative staff?

JC: The best advice, and one that I was familiar with from previous interactions with COMPASS, was to hone my message using the message box. It really does work. What remains a little confusing is the fine line between advocacy and advice on what scientists think policymakers should do.

FC: It would be helpful for me to continue thinking about the kinds of recommendations we can put on the table. We were very cautious about not crossing the lobbying line, but didn’t prep as much (at least I didn’t) on what we can offer as take-home actions.

TH: The COMPASS preparation was really excellent, both in terms of giving us feedback on what statements might be stumbling blocks versus what things really ‘resonate’ with policymakers. Also, the opportunity to practice and run through our briefings several times really allowed our group to connect and understand where the other scientists were coming from. Some very interesting scientific discussions came out of those interactions!

KK: I felt very prepared. It was useful to know where we were in the legislative cycle, and that there weren’t any specific bills or decisions happening at that moment.

Thank you to these scientists for their time and their willingness to share their experiences!

Interested in seeing more from the briefing? To download the slides, click here; for the handout, click here.

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Dr. Jenn Caselle speaks at the briefing.

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About Kristin Carden

As COMPASS’ Assistant Director, I help empower scientists to engage in the public discourse about the environment. I am based in Bozeman, Montana, where year-round access to the spectacular beauty and ecological richness of the Northern Rockies serves as an unending inspiration for my work.

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