New Program To Help Scientists Reach Out

August 04, 1998

BALTIMORE, Md. - Scientists today announced an innovative new program to train "scientist communicators" for the future and hopefully improve the flow of accurate, credible scientific information to policy makers and the general public on critical issues of the environment.

Under this concept, some of the nation's leading environmental scientists will become "Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellows" and more actively share their expertise in water and air quality, diseases, fisheries, agriculture, contaminants, global climate change, endangered species and other critical issues with local communities, the news media, political leaders and local, state and federal policy makers.

Oregon State University will operate the new program on behalf of the Ecological Society of America, supported by a $1.5 million, five-year grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

"The current rate of ecological change is unprecedented in the history of the Earth," said Judith Vergun of Oregon State University, the project director. "We have current scientific knowledge on which the public should be informed and our policies should be based. But often that doesn't happen, and policies all too often reflect information that's 20 years old."

For instance, on the issue of global warming, many people may be confused by complicated studies and pseudo-scientific critics who argue the phenomenon is an unproven theory of no particular importance, Vergun said.

But the vast majority of credible scientists say global warming is now a reality, that the time for action is here and that the looming crisis is very real, with implications for everything from severe weather events, to the spread of disease, disruptions of agriculture and forestry, rising sea levels and habitat loss.

That vast gap between common perceptions and scientific reality has to be bridged, experts say, and the new program is designed to do that by making professional communicators out of researchers who usually think more in terms of professional journals than newspapers or legislative committees.

"We envision a leadership and communication training program designed to help environmental scientists become more effective communicators of science to the public and policy makers," said Jane

Lubchenco, an OSU distinguished professor of zoology. "The need for clearly presented, scientifically credible information on environmental issues is greater now that ever before.

"We're very grateful that the David and Lucile Packard Foundation shares that vision and is making this program possible," Lubchenco added.

A past president of both the Ecological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science - two of the world's most prestigious professional science organizations - and chair of the steering committee for the Leopold Leadership Program, Lubchenco today outlined the new program at the ESA's annual meetings in Baltimore.

A group of 20 tenured, academic scientists from a wide range of environmental fields of study will be chosen during each of the next three years to attend two separate one-week workshops for intensive study in five areas:A workshop focusing on policy and governmental issues will be held each year in Washington, D.C., and a study group emphasizing communication with the news media, business and science communities will be held in Oregon.

Completion of this program will allow scientists to be designated a "Leopold Leadership Fellow," Vergun said, which organizers expect to become an honor of some distinction. Along with the participant's other scientific and academic credentials, it should help some of America's finest scientists gain more public attention, credibility and help the public, media and policy makers know to whom they can turn for high quality, credible, scientific analysis.

"Of course, there's also an expectation here that these researchers will accept the responsibility to speak out on these issues," Vergun said. "We'll look for people who take that charge seriously."

Members of the steering committee or advisory board for the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program include representatives from leading universities, governmental and private agencies, and the news media. They include OSU, Stanford University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Time Magazine, National Public Radio, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Smithsonian Institution, National Science Foundation, and a former member of the U.S. Senate.

"The difficult problems facing the Earth's environment are too important to any longer be relegated to the sidelines," said Paul Risser, president of OSU and member of the new program's steering committee. "It's time we brought the nation's most credible scientists to the forefront of this debate and gave them the training they need to speak out clearly, honestly and forcefully.

"This could be a huge opportunity to help educate the people of America and the world," Risser added.
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SOURCES: Judith Vergun, 541-737-4684
Jane Lubchenco, 541-737-5337
Paul Risser, 541-737-2565
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Oregon State University

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