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Jerry: Iím Jerry McMahon with the U.S. Geological Surveyís National Water-Quality Assessment Program-- The team leader of a project thatĎs looking at the effects of urbanization on stream ecosystems. And Iím talking this morning with Vivek Shandas, Associate Professor at Portland State. And we are looking at the topic not so much of urbanization as such, but another topic thatís a little bit on the side but I think very important to where we are in terms of our project.
And that is: How do we communicate technical information, scientific information to an audience who basically are non-scientists? But who maybe have some real interest that would be affected by that information, although they might not know it.
Viviek: So Iíll start with a very general framework and then try to work into a little few more details about the question about communication. Itís a question as old as the hills, and itís a question that I think is particularly timely to get into at this moment as weíre thinking about whatís happening in Congress as we speak, and about the communication failures that weíre seeing and the communications opportunities that weíre seeing emerge. In terms of science, this is a pretty broad field. Iíll kind of set the stage maybe. The easiest way to set the stage is through a framework that I found really helpful in a lot of my classes.
Iím in the faculty as you were alluding to, Jerry, in the College of Urban and Public Affairs, and while Iím kind of a social scientist by my institutional affiliation to this college, my background, my training as a natural scientist in biology and environmental science. I kind of have come into this world of urban and public affairs primarily because of the work Iíve been trying to do in so far as, getting the information that scientists are doing, and the collective efforts for understanding phenomenon such as urbanization and the impacts on stream ecosystems, is a topic of keen interest for me. Iím trying to get that to where the rubber meets the road.
So what Iíve been trying to convey in my classes is this framework of this notion of believe Ė Iíll get into the details of each as itís mentioned, believe, knowing and doing. So the concept is simply put. Believing is around the idea of when weíre communicating information, scientific information, our own biases, really any information at all to a certain degree. That one asks themselves, what do we want our audience to believe? Do we want to believe that USGS is an institution that conducts rigorous science and is able to have the legitimacy, credibility, and saliency to its audience? And is that what we want our audience to believe?
The second component is this notion of knowing, the idea of we would like our audience to know something about USGS. Or, we would like the audience to know something about the relationship between urban development, and stream ecosystems. Whether thatís related to the critters in the stream, whether thatís related to the actual land use patterns occurring in the upland areas of the watershed. What have you. So thereís certain things I can know about that phenomenon that I deliberately detached from this notion of belief.
The last component, this notion of doing, while I can hope that you believe that I am presenting you with credible scientific information, and I can hope that you are understanding relationships between the biotic and the abiotic components of a watershed. When I start asking myself, what do I want you to do with that? It gets into a very interesting set of questions about poetically, from a policy point of view, from an individual household, from an individual citizen point of view, from an institutional point of view, such as a university or a major federal agency.
The question becomes, what do we do? And that can take a range of scales whether thatís come across in your lifetime or tomorrow, it can also take place and across, how does my action affect, whatís happening in my backyard versus whatís happening globally. So thatís this framework of believing, knowing, and doing is something that I found really helpful in putting together short descriptions about the work that somebody has done in a lab or in their particular research environment and trying to communicate that to the community.
Jerry: Iíd be interested at some point during the conversation to talk about what you might do with your students. Who are going to be professional planners, and who are often times going to be in that boundary in between scientific information coming across their desk, but they need to translate that into terms that people in the neighborhood, or a region, or a county might have to either accept or not accept, but do something with. But I wanted to start with the notion of believability. Which I think in part has to do with trust of the person or the agency. Trusting that what theyíre doing is legitimate that this is ďscience.Ē
But also as par to f the believability thing to talk about the issue of, is all science equal, in terms of its believability. Because, in the exchanges you see now on Fox News versus, CNN versus MSNBC, you get the background drumming, is about this question of whose information is really believable; and almost adversarial science. So can you talk a little bit about what makes scientific information believable? And also, about the issue of, is all science equal?
Vivek: Thatís a great question. Thereís so many ways to approach that. But Iíll fall back on a comfortable place, and that is in this place of the literature that Iím kind of steeped in, and the kinds of work that scholars are doing all around the world in understanding this relationship between credible science, believable science, and best available science and these kinds of phrases that we hear kicked around these days, and not only United States but across the globe. I would, for convenience, I break the notion of belief down into three Ėacademics work in threes, and so three is a very convenient number in that sense.
I think about the framework that folks that have been thinking about this a lot longer than I have and have also examined this, and thatís this notion, what you were getting at; a notion of trust Ėif you will. And to me trust is such a central operating dimension of believable science. And what that kind of breaks onto me is this notion of legitimacy. Which I would start to Ė and thinking about my students, and talking to them as well of this notion, how do you know that this particular piece of scientific information is legitimate? Or a global environmental assessment such as Millennium Ecosystem Assessment or IPCC, how do you know that those are actually legitimate documents?
Whatís becoming more and more apparent in literature, and whatís becoming more and more apparent in my work locally, and a little bit more nationally and internationally is the notion that weíre moving from this a time of what might be called nubious legitimacy or mysterious, or expert legitimacy to this notion of civic legitimacy, or collective legitimacy. Where who your partners are, who youíre engaging, the networks youíre involved with, how many groups are you connecting in terms of examining your work and providing a set of eyes for your work; that notion of civic legitimacy has become very commonplace now, it seems to be becoming much more commonplace now in the way believable science is delivered.
Jerry: Can I interrupt, just for a second, around that point?
Jerry: Within the science world, whether itís social science, or natural science, physical science; that credibility or legitimacy is based on objective, searching, critical peer review. You make some knowledge claims, you write them on paper, you circulate them through the literature, and you get a response. Sometimes people give you a claim, and recognize these are good ideas, other times they find the holes and shoot holes, in that stuff. The state of science advances that way.
How is that going to happen, you talk about these networks and so Iím thinking of my USGS project locally; and typically I would essentially sit in my office with a group of peers and design projects to meet certain knowledge objectives, and figure out protocols for doing data collection and data analysis over six months or a year, or multiple years implement that design and come up with a knowledge product or some knowledge claims that I put into the literature. So how in this new world of civic legitimacy what does that mean for a scientist sitting in an office in Raleigh or Portland, or Milwaukee, even if the design fits; do we need to be talking to some additional people beyond scientists when weíre even framing what the questions are? Does that make sense?
Vivek: Yes, yes it does make sense. It actually Ė I just want to touch on a couple of aspects of that question. First, is the notion that credibility and the system of checks and balances that you outlined about the peer-review process. That in a sense is a little bit different in my mind than the notion of legitimacy. We can start thinking about civic legitimacy at least in the sense of being more along lines of isolated lab work. This is what weíre seeing across the university in the direction that a lot of research is happening-- I can speak specifically to university systems.
That isolated lab work thatís occuring in the lab, one that has kind of removed the pressing questions that a lot of decision makers are posing. Their number of aspects of the system of rewards and penalties that will alienate that type of work Ė further alienate this type of work. That is work thatís occurring in an isolated sense. What your question, in my mind is getting at, first parsing out credibility and legitimacy piece. Credibility- we have this system of checks and balances, and while it might not be fool-proof; itís a human construct in many ways, we do have this notion of saliency that comes up in terms of the believability in science.
As I was recalling, work that Iíve been involved with, and the work that I feel that has had an impact it the miniscule number of times where I feel that Iíve had impact. It might be that yes, I am considered credible because I have published in the peer review process and seen as having contributed to that discourse. But when I think about the work that Iíve had any say on, direction, or influence Ėitís a powerful word, has been really around the trust that I have created that Iíve developed with particular decision makers.
And people who were saying, hey we want to figure out whether the nutrient load in this particular stream is higher than; lower than; is related to Ė something going on, in around this particular area.
Jerry: So how does the trust thing happen? When you talked about your sense was it that youíve had the most impact in these occasions where there was some trust, most believability connection. So how do you foster that?
Vivek: And thatís exactly it, this isolated lab approach, where Iím not talking, and this is one archetype Ė if you will. The researcher whoís working moved from the discussions that are happening in Capitol Hill, city hall, that are happening at the county commissionerís office. There are probably multiple ways that this can happen I could speak personally to what I found to be effective and helpful. First off, meeting some of these folks, participating in various advisory boards, by engaging myself in activities in public discourses thatís occurring within and around the region.
And this can be everything from the urban canopy plan thatís being rolled out to larger scale watershed plan. In Portland we have a watershed plan thatís in place and the question is, what aspects of that watershed plan do I feel like I can contribute to? And so to actually start a discussion with the people involved in that, and to in the sense, participate in a number of opportunities to start to talk to those people who are in those positions of decision making. Even over lunch, itís not necessarily a formalized technical advisory meeting.
But, as Iíve developed those relationships Iíve found that the interest and the willingness of decision makers to listen to what I have to say is very different from when I send them from my office a paper Iíve written on a topic that theyíre deliberating.
Vivek: So that relationship building, and again coming back to the notion of civic legitimacy, I feel likeóPaul Sabatier, in California, he refers to this as the era of collaboration. And that weíve gone through a number of eras that heís chronicling in ďSwimming UpstreamĒ a recent book that heís written. It really comes back to this notion, what are the collaborations that weíre involved with, how deep are those collaborations, how much trust has there been built in those collaborations. So, itís not rocket science, in that sense but it does take time, it does take a lot of sincere and honesty, willingness to accept criticism about a plan that youíve worked so hard on; a particular paper that youíve been working on.
Jerry: I kind of want to ask the same question again from a different angle because, I can anticipate and I may well have had this reaction myself in different points in my career; but you roll out a phrase like civic legitimacy to some scientists and the best reaction you might get is eye roll, and it might go downhill from there pretty quickly. Again in the overall topic of believability and legitimacy, whatís the downside, of not putting in the effort to develop a certain baseline measure of civic legitimacy for science work in general that USGS might be doing?
Vivek: Yeah, thatís a tricky question. The baseline measure for civic-
Jerry: Well, whatís the downside of not having some measure of civic legitimacy? I can know that if I do what I usually do itíll get published in this particular journal. Whatís the downside of that? If thatís all Iím doing.
Vivek: Yeah, so an important distinction I want to draw in just responding is, the notion of civic legitimacy and the way thatís being discussed in literature does not need to in any way detract from the rigorous system of checks and balance that the scientific process thatís been in place for eons. Itís not to direct science in a particular direction, itís not to send it in a specific agenda, itís more to contextualize that particular investigation within a broader system of political wrangling that weíre all a part of. And to really not be involved in that broader contextual discourse about how the science is going to be used, or when it can be used.
The field of, for example, implementation fidelity which is about a piece of scientific information being Ė or a scientific investigation is being done for a specific purpose, being used for a variety of other purposes. There are some great studies looking into scientific genealogy where you can trace back how pieces of scientific information; where you really look back to see where it was generated. Itís like the joke about the person sitting in a circle, whispers something to the person sitting next to their ear.
Jerry: The telephone.
Vivek: The telephone. Come all around itís a pink elephant car wash. Or something like that. Itís very different from when it began. So the context from where that science is occurring is essential. The downside of actually not engaging in the context-rich platform in which all the science is actually happening. On the one side I think weíre all participating in the system that serves up the science. When I write a paper and send it out for publication, in part because Iím rewarded to do, Iím serving up some science. Do I always write a one page memo and send it to all the interested parties that might be affected by, or could find this work interesting? No.
Do I always go out on a dog and pony show to the agencies and to the decision makers in or around the region or across the country or the conferences? No. To not be doing that is probably fine. I think when a catastrophe like, letís say the oil spill disaster, Deep Sea Horizon in the Gulf; there were volumes of research on the implications of deep-sea drilling. There were volumes of research of Ďwhat would happen ifí and how to mitigate the impacts of. And it was pretty much shelved for a long time. But all of a sudden when this event occurred all that came to the front and it was immediately looked into, examined, criticized, applied, in many instances.
So, for me to be doing science and to have it shelved at some decision makersí table-- Okay fine, thereíll be a time when this might be of pressing concern. And thatís at least what I fall back on in terms of the work that I do. The research that USGS does, whether we know, whether you have a gage for when itís being applied, how itís being applied, where itís being applied; those are measures for me in terms of the perceived legitimacy of the work. And I imagine that local fish and wildlife agencies and what have you, one could assess the types of literature theyíre drawing on, the kinds of relationships they have with USGS. To have a pretty good sense with how the organization is perceived and to what extent the implementation is actually being directed in such a way thatís specific to how it was generated.
Jerry: My guess is that the USGS is probably pretty long on credibility among our peers who might be used to using whether itís data or interpreted reports produced by USGS and feel like what theyíre getting, whatís getting served to them Ėif you will is stuff that they can kind of rely on and go on and do their thing. Maybe itís more problematic in terms of the legitimacy for a broader audience than a non-scientific audience. And maybe thatís where a little bit of work and effort, and thought would need to occur. If that makes sense.
Vivek: So then, now weíre getting a question knowing.
Vivek: What would you want as an institution, as an agency Ė what would you want the audience, the broader Ė in this case the community, the civic leaders, whether it be the county commissioner, or a citizen; what would you want them to know about the work that USGS does, and how that potentially could affect their--?
Jerry: Well I know thatís kind of a rhetorical question, but also I can respond out of the context my study. And that is, we know from the studies of the effect of urban development around the country. Nine or ten different locations, thereís two main findings. One is that there doesnít appear to be a safe zone of urban development; at least in terms of the macroinvertebrates that live in the streams. As soon as you get some impervious cover develop; put in a street, or put in a bridge crossing youíre going to start to see effects down the stream. So no safe zone urban development.
And the second is that what happens as urban development occurs the impacts in the stream vary around the country. So what happens is that the signal in Dallas is different than the signal in Portland, or Raleigh, or the Boston area. So we have scores of journal articles and USGS reports from the last decade that have ways of measuring stressors and ways of measuring responses in the stream in terms of physical, chemical and biological effects. And weíve communicated that in the literature at conferences and so forth. It seems to resonate with people; they find this something useful to know.
The claims weíre making are implying information that is useful to them. But I donít know that weíd have a good handle on communicating those two bits of knowledge; as things that we want people to know-- that we have a good handle of doing that with this broader, civic concept that youíre talking about. It might be a planner, it might be a county commissioner, it might be a citizensí group, and even in the watersheds where youíre working. So the thing weíre grappling with is how do we help people know this fact that thereís no safe zone in urban development, and that what you can expect to see following urbanization is going to really vary depending on the part of the country.
So itís not just a rhetorical question it really gets to the heart of what weíre trying to do at this stage of this project which is to create Ėusing different media, create some products that help people know things about those two findings in a way that is either interesting or that can connect in a way that theyíre interested in terms of financial effects or whatever.
Vivek: When Iíve seen the study and Iíve seen local examples of it and national examples of it-- first I must commend you as USGS, on conducting a systematic assessment nationally, and on an issue that I think is of an increasing importance. Not only in the United States, but where my work in China, in India, and other parts of Asia; scholars are looking to USGS from what I can gage, and these studies that are coming out about urbanization and the impacts on local rivers and water bodies. And theyíre in many ways repeating similar studies.
And so I think in that sense, just in my gage of whatís internationally moving forward, and I imagine you all have a better sense of this than I do in my kind of pockets of research, peppered across Asia. Itís surprising to me that there have been so few systematic assessments. So I think in that sense, just a major hurdle and a major contribution that USGS has made in and of itself. There are two other quick points about the study, I find really interesting in that context that weíve been talking about. The first result in terms of no safe zone for urbanization; I find that, in the policy context that would be a very tricky place for an urban planner to begin with.
So if I were to talk to my students about the study that youíve all have been working so hard on. Iíd say, ďWell, you know, urban development is going to create problems to the biota.Ē So, theyíll immediately want to know, and the rigors of the study I can dig into that; and when Iíve had local USGS researchers come in and speak in my courses; the questions that they ask afterwards is, ďSo, what do we do about that?Ē ďDoes that mean we canít have any urban development; well thatís not a possibility.Ē So this is where we get in to the questions that planning students tend to want to know. They want to know, okay these studies are rich, theyíre rigorous, theyíre credible, but are they salient?
And thatís where it starts getting to be Ė and in the research weíve done in the northwest, talking to planners about what information theyíve drawn, we did some studies on whatís been called in Washington State for example, Best Available Science. So we went around and asked a number of planners, ďWhat are the characteristics Best Available Science to you? Can we see your bibliography of ordinances that youíve written on protecting critical areas in and around your urban area? To get a sense for where youíre drawing your information many USGS reports and what have youĒ.
And I found a few responses Ė and I think this is going to come as a surprise to you, I found a few responses from the Ė actually it was more than a few, it was pretty overwhelming actually, and one quote, Iíll paraphrase it: ďI donít want some researcher coming in from Harvard with a 500-page report on streams published in Science or Nature to direct what I do in my municipality. I know this creek better than anyone knows this creek. And Iím going to use what I know about this creek to essentially safeguard it to development.
And so the broader context again being, what are the opportunities of making work that youíve done salient to Ė these planners Iím talking to are saying, ďI want local information; I want work thatís salient to and perceived as.Ē Thatís the importance. Whether itís salient or not, you and I can agree and say yes of course it is, weíve done it across the country; weíve looked at a variation of geomorphological characteristics of these systems.
Does that matter to Susie planner, whoís trying to think about whatís going on in their backyard? Thatís where the civic legitimacy creeps its way into the discussion because itís where we start saying, how have we connected our work and tailored it to the work occurring in it.
Jerry: Well, the worst case scenario, in a sense, from a plannerís perspective is that you have Ė it might be USGS, it might be a consulting firm, a university department, produces this brilliant report. There are all these nuggets of scientifically validated information and they are on target with concerns and questions people have. But they hand that off to the planner and then theyíre gone. And the planner is then left with a sales and education job. And all these documents that they have, their engineering department that they need to talk to, they have the planning board, they have the county commissioner or city council, and they have neighborhood groups.
So right there are four different constituencies and they have to take this report which has knowledge something that they can know, but translate that into a form for four different audiences, for example. All of them may slightly different things that theyíre curious about, and also different things that motivate them, that interest them in this thing in the first place. So, could you talk a little bit about the Ė there two boundaries that need to be crossed, you have the scientist delivering some information to a planner, and then you have a planner thatís further distributing that information.
So in that journey, or quest carrying information out to the public; what does the scientist need to think about? In particular about, when theyíre handing it off to the next stage in the process to come up with knowledge that might be useful. I guess weíre getting back to this thing of understanding the audience.
Vivek: Understanding the audience Ė but I think thereís another piece that I probably want to touch on there. This is the, in the dimension, of uncertainty, and the communication of uncertainty, is something I think itís undervalued in this first stage of transferring, or of serving information. How is uncertainty characterized in for example, the variation that occurs across the biophysical Ė and biomes across the country for your urbanization in streams study. How does one characterize the uncertainty? Could that uncertainty be cause for, or reason to, set aside or not consider the study at all?
So being upfront about where this study is relatively Ė where the study can provide guidance, where the study falls short of being able to provide guidance. And that transparency allows the scientist, in a sense, to convey information thatís more or less bounded in what we can consider as legitimate, and what we can consider as credible. But, uncertainty, as we all know, has been the harbinger Ėif you will, or the rationale for discrediting just about some of the best science that I think, has been produced.
And so how we go about thinking through the Ė thereís a field of uncertainty science, when weíre talking about measurement uncertainty, or communication uncertainty we can get into various types of uncertainty. To get at that first stage Ė getting at this concept of how does one convey uncertainty in the science that they do and in the context in which it can be applied.
Jerry: Thatís a great point because, I think in my career when Iíve talked with decision makers, for instance, or even a member of the public who is interested in a particular study; thereís almost the sense that they view these pieces of scientific information that weíre providing as the truth. Itís like a point estimate Ėif you will, and thatís whatís true. And thereís no appreciation for the fact that this is just an estimate of maybe the most likely outcome of a whole set of outcomes. And that set of outcomes also have some likelihood of occurring as well. And when something happens thatís different from that point estimate, the most likely one; that can be occasion to call into question the whole ball game.
Vivek: Thatís right. Thatís great. Thatís a central point.
Jerry: Yeah. What have you found? What are you telling your students Ė in terms of this whole issue? Part of the knowledge that youíre communicating to the city council member, or whatever-- one characteristic of that knowledge is that in fact, thereís uncertainty associated with this one particular estimate. How do you Ė?
Vivek: So, thereís a second phase of the scientist and the position, the chair the scientist is sitting in and handing over the information over to the planner. As consultants do, as agencies do, as researchers in the universities do. The second stage of, okay, now thereís a planner sitting on my environmental planning boardĖ with my environmental cap on; trying to develop coordinates protecting particular sensitive species within my municipality. What do I Ė how do I think about that? In terms of training students, and in terms of what could Ė what would I like to see happening? Maybe thatís a question Iím going to get at before anything else.
My personal cap, not my PSU cap per say but, I think weíve done a massive disservice to training of planners in their capacity to understand both the social and the technical dimensions of the field. Weíve tended to emphasize one or the other, and rarely have we been able to really integrate the two. And I see even our cohort of students that come here Ė talented we get 350 plus applicants to this program. We get 35 to 40 students that come to the program and we get to pick of the litter. And they come here super talented and they start to slowly bifurcate into this group thatís very technically savvy, capable, interested in those areas.
And then this group thatís, ďIím a little scared of thatĒ. And whether thatís because of their high school training, or grade school training, their parents; I donít know. But what I see here is that weíve rarely been able Ė particularly my environmental planning methods, courses and things, planners to be conversant with engineers, with scientists. In a way that both challenges the assertions made by the scientists and also, understands the uncertainties, understands the applicabilities, understands the kind of context that can be applied.
The training of students, at least in the courses that Iím in, I find myself being a little bit of a challenging instructor in the sense of wanting to really engage students in the technical dimensions of it. We use in my class, for example StreamStats, which is a product that emerged out of USGS and this is to delineate basins, to understand hydrographs, these are for USGS scientists probably bread and butter, probably the kind of the everyday speak around the office at the watering hole and what have you.
So for a planner however, it might not always be the case when ordinances, city council, particular neighborhood community groups, this might be the everyday speak. So when we start linking together, hey, thereís a hydrograph from Johnson creek, that suggests certain changes that are occurring, to either communities living next to Johnson creek that might be affected by this change in hydrograph, we can start to weave together Ė and this is my idealized notion of integration of science and integration of natural and social sciences.
We can start to then say, thereís certain communities affected, thereís certain scientific information that we understand. And that we can start to engage in these communities in understanding whatís happening in or around their physical place that they live. So in that sense itís really kind of steeping them in the link of where the science can be of value, when your primary interest might be community development and to know where science could actually have some value.
Jerry: It seems like one of the challenges is really, at least within the planning world, and perhaps for USGS; but you always need a cohort of practitioners who are bicultural. In the sense that; they can communicate in the language and appreciate the concepts of the world within which scientists work. But are as comfortable with their other language- the language of the community, or the decision makers and then they appreciate the words and the nuances and can help bring information back and forth. Ideally scientists can do all that, and the other people could do all that too. But thereís a need to be bicultural.
Vivek: Youíve really hit on that. Notion of cultural competences has been talked about in so many different ways, but weíre talking about disciplinary competence in a sense, and the direction of where funding agencies are becoming for university settings, where weíre looking at National Science Foundation and Environmental Protection Agency etc.; they are funding things that are interdisciplinary.
And that where my students in planning would be working very closely with students in aquatic sciences, or hydrologists, or a botanist, and trying to Ė fluvial geomorphologist , and trying to get planners before getting out into the field and testing a lot of the ordinances or policies that theyíre developing, removed of this kind of input of understanding. To actually test that prior to getting out there is a service that weíre trying to weave into the instruction and the curriculum a lot more. And well itís kind of all the buzz word right now; itís a lot easier said than done.
But this notion of cultural competence or bi-cultural communication I think is Ė itís actually polycultural because there so many disciplines and all have their own language, their own language, their own epistemological groundings, their own purpose. Trying to get some familiarity with that and the willingness to explore that. Itís at least a step that weíre trying to muddle through at this point.
Jerry: Vivek, Iím wondering if we can move from the ideas of believability, credibility, knowledge; transferring some knowledge to the whole idea of what we might want people to do with this believable knowledge. From a USGS perspective we typically wouldnít be advocating that they do any particular thing, in terms of a policy option, A or B. As much as we would like them to take this knowledge and use it to become more aware participants in the policy making process. So anyway Iím wondering if you could talk a little bit about this whole notion of people taking this information and doing something with it.
Vivek: In the broader discussion that weíve had so far, if we have some information about what impacts a stream, then the ostensible response, that if Iím so interested in improving the condition of that stream, and not having a stinky stream in my backyard; then I will take some action to improve the condition of that stream. While I understand that USGS may not be in the position to direct action per say, there is an Ė I have possibly a bias in the sense that, how the information and how the awareness is translated into action is again a whole set of, an entire discipline an entire area of investigation.
But to kind of summarize some of the aspects of it, I come back to this notion of what would be in response to what USGS has, wants the audience to know about a phenomenon, whether thatís urbanization in the streams, or whether thatís general volcanic activity occurring in and around the northwest or what have you. The question of implementation of how to actually go about seeing something happen will take route in a variety of different contexts. So you serve up the report and county commissioner will use it one way, a state agency will use it in another way Ė possibly another way.
A community group advocating for clean rivers use it in another way. A particular citizen owning a home in a riparian corridor, they use it in yet another way. So to try to track all those different ways and to try to predict and anticipate all those different ways that information is going to be used, is as we know impossible. Itís a no-win situation. So the question then becomes, how can one present information in such a way that allows the audience to go in the direction that they want to go with it, but yet bound the information in such a way that allows it to be legitimately applied.
Jerry: Responsibly Ė.
Vivek: Responsibly applied, right thatís a better phrase. So I think in those realms we have in a planning context, the goal of making a plan. Weíve gotten a plan in place. And this is what I talk to a lot of my students about and discuss with them, is this notion of we have a plan in place, thatís our mandate. Weíve created a watershed plan for the city of Portland or the metropolitan region. The extent to which that plan is actually implemented, monitored, and adaptively responding to the changing environment; thatís a system thatís either broken, nonexistent, or really, really limited.
So the doing is probably the most complicated part of the work I think, not only USGS does, but in terms of the planning endeavor is probably the most complicated parts of the puzzle. From my own work in the science that Iíve been engaged with, Iíve often found avenues to identify where would be Ė Iíve often tried to identify after the results have come in and even as the study is being designed potential constituencies that might be interested in this work. And what Iíve often done is tried to couch the work in such a way that would be of value to them.
Again it might not be in the direction that USGS wants to go with the reports and with the research thatís being done. But Iíve found that having these kind of pithy, responsibly, applied memos that are essentially disseminated-- targeted dissemination-- tends to be more effective in terms of whether the worth is applied, whether itís applied in the context that Iíve actually conducted the work. So itís a very slippery slope to try to direct exactly how itís to be applied.
But I would fall back on some work thatís happened outside of my own field, and maybe the work of USGS; in public health, often people are Ė thereís an enormous body of literature thatís emerged in the last decade or so, around implementation fidelity. And that is the notion that when a study is done about mosquito nets and malaria, the relationship between mosquito nets and malaria are Ė and a policy or a program are set up where sub-Saharan Africa households are given mosquito nets because, we want to reduce the prevalence of malaria.
With the studies in some of the research that Iíve found is that these nets are often used as completely different instruments and tools; for fishing, for games, and for other activities. They found that when theyíre sold to families and to households that thereís actually a monetary value and a cost attributed to the particular item that the fidelity, so to speak, or the implementation of what they were intended for was actually much tighter than when they were just provided free. And so thatís a little bit of a tangent, but at the same time it comes back to the question of what do we do, and how do we know whether our work is being in some way acted upon.
The only way that I can kind of come back to is targeted dissemination of the work. Whether Congress is looking into a bill around urban development and stream condition and that theyíre deliberating that. That these particular reports be made available and that people are reminded of their presence. I think is a very helpful action. Just doing and getting the work out there is maybe the bottom line.
Jerry: In a sense, for this particular study of effects of urbanization on stream ecosystems it is making sure that the various products get into the hands of people who you think at least logically might have an interest.
Vivek: Exactly. And there may be others that are not your usual suspects that actually may end up using it Ė Iíve seen this actually occur in one study around urban heat islands that Iíve been involved with about how communities have just taken this research and just run with it. I never thought it would be the state public health agency. But it turned out to be a number of NGOs and community organizations that have taken this and started these heat advisories on their own. So it wasnít what I thought it would be necessarily the direction of the research, but again.
Jerry: Iím curious on your take Ė one last question here about the use of alternative media Ė or at least alternative media for USGS as a way to cast the net a little wider in terms of the potential context that might be made with audiences we donít even anticipate as having interest in this stuff. The use of video, podcast, and Twitter, and Facebook; from your perspective as someone whoís teaching planners and people that are younger and really facile with these tools, do you see that these other media as being useful in terms of outlets.
Vivek: Yeah, itís an interesting question. As someone who doesnít tweet, someone who is not on Facebook, someone who is still sending letters to my Ė snail mail letters to my mother because, thatís what sheíll accept as a legitimate form of information about me-- I would think that the pulse that Iím picking up on from the students that are moving through our university and from the general discussion about the region thatís littered with our graduates.
That they seek information in a variety of nontraditional sources Ė at least not traditional in my perspective and many of these have to do with, ďHey I have this problem with a particular ordinance that Iím trying to write,Ē and this is put up on a professional Facebook page. Anybody Ė and they have a network of many professionals and their similar cohorts, and similar counterparts around the country. And they end up being able to pick up on these bits of information that somebody in Wichita had somehow worked on; lo and behold, somebody in Portland is starting to kind of work with it.
The field of research that a lot of that falls into is diffusion of innovation. And often what weíre getting at in these nontraditional sources of information and alternative media is this notion of horizontal diffusion where itíll be people who have a particular concern about a problem that theyíre working on and they look to the global web of potential Ė as we know as the research suggests, people tend to not just respond necessarily to that one response, but they look at the whole suite of possible scenarios and kind of pick and choose what might work best for them. And so if a podcast in this sense lends itself to a tight informative discussion then I think itís all the more important that we find the way to get the work out there.
Jerry: Yeah I think that the whole notion of diffusion of innovations is actually a good wrapping-up point to our conversation today because to the extent that our conversation is really focused at; USGS scientists and Office of Communications, people who work with these scientists to get the word out. I think that many of the points that you have made today really involve innovations and how we picture the information that we develop being used. Part of what we are trying to do is spread out, diffuse some of these ideas to our colleagues within USGS. Are there any characteristics of the early adopters, or the successful adopters of these innovations that we can think about in terms of encouraging people to be open to these innovative and even challenging notions that you presented?
Vivek: Yeah, the earlier adopters have the highest, steepest learning curves.
Jerry: In what sense?
Vivek: In the sense of trying to adopt new media.
Jerry: Okay, right. So they have had the experience of failures probably.
Vivek: Yes I think that tends to be the case. Thereís the three part model, there are the early adopters that tend to adopt a lot of things early, there are those that wait until the information or the technology is mature and gets to a point where we can actually go in, and there are others, Luddites or hold outs whether it be the iPhone or the new information thatís emerging about urbanization and stream health. So in terms of lessons to take away-- the work weíve done on climate-change planning, Alan Basset and I
wrote a paper for the Journal American Planning Association looking at a couple of dozen land use a climate change plans, climate action plans, that cities have adopted and evaluated them for different characteristics that were in the plan. And what we found is that when a lot of information emerges and thereís a field of planning that hasnít been responsive to climate information for the history of the field, in a sense, that suddenly thereís this fervor in planning agencies that we have to do something about it. So letís do anything Ė letís do anything and get all the information out there.
So what we generally found is that anything, falls into an innovation, in a sense, anything falls into a climate-action plan, and that we can call everything from a street-corner trash compacter that many cities are putting forward to changing everything into compact fluorescents in your office. Anything and everything can fall into a climate-change plan. The lesson that we learned from that was more or less in terms of diffusion of innovation, it can be broadly defined, it can be broadly applied, it can be very uncritically evaluated and itís a wide open field in terms of the information disseminating out there.
I think itís a pretty open field of how one can engage in various forms of technology, various forms of communication and to get the word out there. Kind of a clunky response to what youíre asking, but at the same time itís a tough Ė thatís one of the trickier questions in terms of what are lessons to be learned about getting information out there in the early adopters.
Jerry: It seems like part of what Iím taking from what youíre saying is that youíre going to need some group of people who are probably a little more adventuresome and bold who are trying some new things. But you also need an evaluation structure to make sure that if theyíre off track, or in a non-productive tract, that you catch that before too many resources have gone in that direction. And that you just have to be deliberate and stay on top of whatís going on.
Vivek: Yeah, exactly I appreciate that synopsis.
Vivek: Great. All right.
Jerry: Well Vivek, great to talk with you I really appreciate this chance to have a conversation. Pretty wide ranging but I think in many senses on target for the challenges that we face as an agency to do a little bit better job in this whole area that youíre describing as civic legitimacy.
Vivek: Not my word, not my phrase, but still a phrase that I think is honestĖ
Jerry: Yeah. Developing information thatís considered to be trustworthy and useful or salient in terms of concrete interest that people have, and also maybe that stretches their imagination a little bit and helps them to learn about the connections between people and these different systems that USGS describes and analyzes.
Vivek: Needless to say I applaud the work that you guys are doing. Itís a privilege to be chatting with everybody here but at the same time itís also going to be really neat to watch this next generation, if you will of not only communication, networks emerge, but how agencies go about. Either capturing some of those communication channels, or dismissing them, or finding ways to adapt them to their own mission within their agencies. I think it would be a really neat next decade.
Jerry: Before we finish also; to see if I understood something you had said earlier. Which was, that all this communication stuff, if you will, it doesnít mean that we stop doing good science, it means in some ways with the implication Iím taking from what youíre saying is that the job isnít done necessarily when you get to the point of having done good science and published that some place that you weíre hoping to publish it; but maybe there are a few more steps to get that stuff out into an arena where itís useable by someone-- we donít necessarily control the use-- but where there is some interest in it; beyond the interest of our peer science colleagues.
Vivek: Now, just to refine that even a little bit more, it is not just to stop doing or even refrain from doing good science, but to recognize that the science is going to be even further evaluated, analyzed and critically assessed. And so, itís to ensure that the science is even more tight, because, of the multiple ways in which it can be interpreted, ways in which it is applied. Yes, to continue doing science is a key part of all of this. Because without it many of us are going to Ė yeah without it many of us will not only miss the connections between urban development and stream degradation, but ultimately end up living in a place that we really donít enjoy.
[End of Audio]
Duration: 62 minutes
A Conversation with Vivek Shandasó
How to Communicate Science
Jerry McMahon, Vivek Shandas
Title: How to Communicate Science?
Jerry McMahon (U.S. Geological Survey) and Viveck Shandas (Portland State University) discuss science communication.
Location: Portland, OR, USGS Oregon Water Science Center and Tyron Creek State Park, USA
Date Taken: 12/15/2010
Video Producer: Douglas Harned , U.S. Geological Survey
Note: This video has been released into the public domain by the U.S. Geological Survey for use in its entirety. Some videos may contain pieces of copyrighted material. If you wish to use a portion of the video for any purpose, other than for resharing/reposting the video in its entirety, please contact the Video Producer/Videographer listed with this video. Please refer to the USGS Copyright section for how to credit this video.
Additional Video Credits:
Jerry McMahon- Producer/Interviewer
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