Rachel Zajac, Jacobs; Oana Birceanu, McMaster University; Shawn Sagar, Arcadis; Gena Braun, Wilfrid Laurier University; and Jacquelyn Ruddie Clarkson, Louisiana Department of Natural Resources

Let’s Get Everyone Engaged: A Special Forum at SETAC Toronto

Everything that we do as scientists relies on communication. We base our careers on communicating with our peers through conferences such as SETAC annual meetings and peer reviewed publications; we take pride on transitioning our science into policy through regulatory agencies; and we share our newfound knowledge with the general public through outreach activities. Communication is the basis of science. Yet, we, the scientists, sometimes struggle to communicate clearly and efficiently.

The goal of this session was to provide a forum for investigating core questions as they relate to the language of science communication and public engagement. By bringing together experts from government, industry and academia, the session delved into shared experiences about science communication, highlighting both successes and failures.

The session focused on two main themes:

  • Public outreach and community engagement in science
  • Communication tools that can be used to make scientific findings more accessible

The interest in science communication was clear: the audience filled the room during the session and by the end was spilling out the door. The session included views from Canadian scientists representing Laurentian SETAC (the Ontario SETAC Regional Chapter); government researchers at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC); and those from local academic institutions, such as McMaster University (MU) and Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU). In addition, researchers at American institutions, such as the University of Michigan (UM) and Duke University, as well as scientists in the industry, at Jacobs Engineering Group and Arcadis U.S., shared their knowledge and experiences with communicating science to the public, regulatory agencies and policy makers.

The session began with a talk on Laurentian SETAC (L-SETAC) community outreach events to promote equity, diversity and inclusion in science. Ève Gilroy (Research Scientist at ECCC) described the events led by the L-SETAC Diversity in Science Committee (DISC), which aims to promote women in STEM; raise awareness of gender disparity in sciences; highlight the achievements of women and members of other underrepresented groups by offering them a voice through social media engagement; and create mentorship opportunities for up-and-coming scientists through L-SETAC-led science event at a local high school.

In line with the community engagement theme, Sarah Warrack, Outreach and Education Officer at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) – Experimental Lakes Area in Manitoba, Canada, spoke next on “Science Education and Public Outreach – Lessons from the IISD Experimental Lakes Area.” Warrack described how the researchers at the IISD-Experimental Lakes Area conduct whole ecosystem research on small freshwater systems and how they engage in extensive community outreach events by establishing and promoting connections between science education, science programming and public outreach.

Gena Braun, Instrumentation Technician at WLU, spoke next about AquaSONG, a program at Wilfrid Laurier University, which seeks to engage and inspire high school students to enter the field of water science. AquaSONG allows Grade 10 and 11 students to come to campus for the day, collect water samples from local waterbodies and conduct laboratory analysis of their water samples. The students also have the opportunity to build their own water purification filter within a specified budget, which encourages them to consider resource management, both financial and environmental. AquaSONG has grown exponentially and highlights the need for more programming of this type.

Jessica Duke, Indigenous Student Recruitment and Outreach Officer at WLU, led the last discussion on community engagement with her talk, “Mama Aki Camp: Challenges, Successes, and Lessons in Indigenous Science Outreach.” Duke’s presentation focused on a WLU summer camp for Indigenous youth in the community, and how the Biology Department at the university came together to get staff, faculty and students engaged.

The session focus shifted to communication tools with a discussion by Brittney Borowiec, post-doctoral fellow at WLU and editor at Massive Science. Her presentation, titled “Going from Scientist to Science Writer” touched on the challenges and pitfalls of getting into popular science writing, and gave tips on how scientists can succeed in this arena by using examples from her experience as a scientist, freelance popular science writer and assistant editor at a popular science media outlet.

Allen Burton (UM), Editor-in-Chief of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, discussed the challenges in communicating science to environmental managers. It is, therefore, essential to find a way to communicate newly published science and data to both environmental professionals and the public. He cautioned against trying to communicate with the “general public” as a whole and suggested that a narrower audience should be defined to develop an effective communication strategy.

Rachel Zajac (Jacobs) spoke on, “The Current State of Ecological Risk Assessment Language: What the heck are we saying and do we expect anyone to understand this?” Many ecological risk assessments can be unclear and confusing, especially to a non-risk assessor audience. Zajac provided real feedback on ecological risk language and discussed specific reasons why communicating ecological risk can be so challenging. She also gave tips on how risk assessors can communicate effectively and concisely to a non-risk assessor audience.

Bryan Luukinen (Duke Superfund Research Center) and Allison Phillips (Arcadis) linked community engagement and communication through their talk on “The Duke Furniture Foam Testing Project: A Case Study in Citizen Science, Research Translation, and Science Communication.” The authors talked about how citizen science projects, such as submitting a sample of your couch to test it for flame retardants, can get the public engaged in research and also shape how scientists communicate their research findings. They also conducted surveys to better understand their audience and help them produce accessible educational materials for the general public.

This was a successful forum that covered case studies, lessons learned, methods and tools for science communication that can be used in public outreach, community engagement and industry communication strategies. We hope that this session inspires continued focus on the importance of science communication, and that it has provided realistic tools and methods that scientists can use to become better communicators.

As for the co-chairs’ experience putting this session together? Well, we can only say it has been one of the most productive Canada-US bi-national partnerships we have ever been a part of.

Authors’ contact information: rachel.zajac-fay@jacobs.com, birceano@mcmaster.ca, shawn.sagar@arcadis.com, gbraun@wlu.ca, jruddieclarkson@gmail.com

View job opportunities in the SETAC Career Center
Submit a professional training course proposal for SETAC Fort Worth
Register by 4 March for SETAC Dublin and save with early bird rates
Apply for a SETAC Global award by 17 March
Submit an abstract by 25 March for SETAC Singapore
Register by 25 March and save for the SETAC NonTarget 2020 Meeting