SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
19 June 2014
Volume 15 Issue 6
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From Basel: Science Communication—Pinpointing Best Practice

Thomas-Benjamin Seiler, Katharina Tarnacki and Henner Hollert, Aachen University, Ursula Klaschka, Hochschule Ulm

Science communication is becoming more and more important for SETAC. The SETAC Europe 24th Annual Meeting in Basel featured, for the third year in a row, a special session on communications. Titled “Research on Communication and Communication of Research—Pinpointing the Best Practice to Improve Our Outreach,” it attracted another large audience eager to hear and learn about communication tools, problems and strategies.

Environmental science originates from a fundamental concern for our natural habitat and human health. Most environmental scientists consider their work to be an important contribution to the well-being of society. However, explaining that work to the public and policymakers requires well-designed and carefully considered communication. Failure to convey meaningful information to an audience outside of the scientific community is not only a waste of time and effort, but can eventually lead to reduced appreciation and support for our work.

The debate on communication strategies is extremely important and was addressed in many sessions at the SETAC Basel meeting more or less explicitly. The variety of communication strategies were seen throughout the many sessions at the SETAC Basel meeting: the first ever SETAC Science Slam; the presentations on teaching LCA; the communication aspects between ECHA, industry and consumers in the REACH process; the ethics game; and the environmental education award.

The goal of our special session was to help structure the process of improving environmental science communications. This was a follow up session to sessions on science communication held at the 6th SETAC World Congress/SETAC Europe 22nd Annual Meeting in Berlin, Germany, and the SETAC Europe 23rd Annual Meeting in Glasgow, Scotland. This year, ten platform and poster presentations illustrated the multidisciplinary character of this topic. Some aspects that were addressed can be summarized as answers to fundamental questions in communication from an environmental sciences point of view:

  1. What is the aim of communication from environmental sciences?
    Some contributions addressed research on communication, whereas others dealt with communication of research. Some authors evaluated the outreach of risk communication (health and environment) and the respective legal actions. Also the pitfalls of communication were addressed. Others gave recommendations to improve the outreach and effectiveness of communication in environmental sciences.

  2. Who is the audience?
    Some authors described that communication of environmental sciences must respect the different stakeholders from business, government and academia, as well as various age groups, cultural backgrounds and geographic origins (such as the European Union, South Africa, Spain or USA). Top-down communication—researcher speaks and the audience listens—is not efficient. Instead, the audience must be acknowledged in a two-way process to improve the transfer of knowledge and understanding.

  3. What is the topic of communication from environmental sciences?
    Contributors chose multiple topics to illustrate communication issues such as nanotechnology, pharmaceutical residues in the water, animal alternative toxicity testing, antibiotics for animal husbandry and personal care products. These topics demonstrate a strong focus on the relevance of adequate risk communication.

  4. Which methods are used for communicating findings ?
    Some contributions dealt with practical experiences (e.g., social media, blogging or product labelling), whereas others analysed important theoretical issues such as communication of uncertainty, usage of specialized language or the relationship between ecological models and reality. New technologies, new approaches, new creative concepts are needed to reach the intended audience, and communication from environmental sciences must be aware that emotions influence public perception.

Based on this, conclusions were drawn by the session participants at the end of the poster corner that completed the session:

  • Environmental sciences communication is a highly multidisciplinary topic, and contributions to this and previous sessions showed communication of scientific findings deals with philosophical, linguistic, psychological, cultural and political aspects on top of the facts concerning environmental sciences
  • We usually cannot just do proper communication because we are able to communicate—effective communication is a rather difficult process that requires special methods, special care and special knowledge, especially in terms of environmental sciences due to the strong societal impact
  • We lack time, money and knowledge—the majority of environmental scientists are interested in science communication but are unsure how to do it
  • Environmental sciences communication is not science communication in general—a clear theoretical structure of environmental sciences communication has to be developed to be able to identify focus points and deficits
  • We have to keep up the pace—standards, suitable methods and innovative new solutions are needed to help environmental scientists to improve their outreach
  • We have to gather forces—those with sound knowledge and experience in science communication should be organized within SETAC and encourage their colleagues to deal with communication and support them

Masterplan

The communication session at the SETAC Berlin in 2012 launched an article series in Environmental Sciences Europe (ESEU) under the title "Lost in translation? Ways for environmental sciences to communicate about risk and research." Since then, five articles have been published and another five are in preparation. We want to encourage everybody to contribute to this series, which will build up a valuable database for the future mapping of expertise on science communication within the community.

We will propose a further communication session at the 2015 SETAC Europe 25th Annual Meeting in Barcelona, Spain. With a continuously growing network of communication expertise and experience, the next session will focus on specific aspects of communication within environmental sciences. We plan to submit a proposal for a SETAC Europe Advisory Group on science communication and invite interested people to contribute. There are lots of general concepts and tools available how to communicate scientific topics, but obviously they must be selected, adapted and developed specifically for environmental sciences. The advisory group will in the future hopefully be one of the main sources of advice on state-of-the-art environmental sciences communication for SETAC members. Whoever wants to participate in the process of shaping the proposal should just indicate their interest via email (seiler@bio5.rwth-aachen.de).

Platform Presentations at the Session

Poster Presentations at the Session

Authors’ contact information: seiler@bio5.rwth-aachen.de, klaschka@hs-ulm.de, katharina.tarnacki@ima-zlw-ifu.rwth-aachen.de and henner.hollert@bio5.rwth-aachen.de

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