Tip of the cap to Randy Olson

Two weeks ago, the museum I work at hosted a lecture by science communication expert Randy Olson. If you have the opportunity to read any of his books, see any of his documentaries or hear him lecture, don’t hesitate for a second…go! I have long since given up on trying to convince the scientific community to improve their public communication skills but Randy is making great strides where I failed miserably…

Here’s where my sob story begins…. I began to tire of traveling around the country as a biological field tech and wanted to take some time off. (More than anything, I missed my Monty Python DVD collection but that’s besides the point.) I ended up in the extremely glamorous situation of  living in my friend’s attic and working as the Animal Activist Coordinator for the farm animal welfare organization, Farm Sanctuary. Now, when I was back in vet tech school in the mid-90’s they told us that animal welfare and animal rights activists were total nut-jobs. So being at Farm Sanctuary was a bit of a fish out of water situation but much to my surprise I found myself enjoying every second of it. And I fell in love with those nut-jobs and came to realize that the label was completely backwards–someone who doesn’t care about animal welfare is a nut-job. I was so enamored and impressed by how their public communication strategies inspired public action that I went back to school to figure out how I could apply those same concepts to the field of environmental science. Two years later I graduated with my master’s in Environmental Communication and Participatory Process and was ready to get to work helping scientists improve their messaging. I moved to the Hudson Valley and worked as a turtle biologist while at the same time starting an environmental communication corporation with two of my fellow graduates.

Very quickly, the organization that I was working for as a turtle biologist started a downward slide towards bankruptcy. It got so bad that all of the employees were working but they hadn’t seen a paycheck in a few months. I asked my fellow co-workers for their outreach and fundraising ideas and presented the information to the Executive Director. He hated every single idea. He firmly believed (and still does) that only rich people care about the environment and the only way to fundraise was to call the same rich donors he calls every three months to beg them for more money. Grovelling for money is not my idea of a sustainable form of raising awareness and funds for your business but this was the only thing he was willing to do. I soon left when the decade-long turtle project was cut due to a complete lack of funds and I hadn’t received a paycheck in a month.

Long story not-so-short, it’s been a few years now and the endangered turtles I was working with now have no one to advocate on their behalf, and the organization went from having about ten full-time employees to four that they haven’t paid in two months. I fought so hard for good, healthy scientific communication. I fought to save the turtle project and for all the other wonderful projects my co-workers championed, but I lost to one stubborn scientist that insisted that he knew better than me. It broke me. After meeting several other scientists/Executive Directors like him, I soon dissolved the corporation and gave up on a future where scientists communicated with anything that could remotely pass as passion.

Thanks to Randy, I’m not such a pessimist anymore. I feel better knowing that I’m not alone. There’s another believer out there, like me, except he is taking action and for that I will be forever grateful.

To all the scientists out there, let me do my part by sharing with you what I know…

  • Everyone cares about the world around them. EVERYONE. Don’t ever assume that “people just don’t care.” I’m sick of hearing scientists say that. Instead, your mantra should be “people just don’t know.” People don’t know about what you study or why they should care about what you study. We aren’t all mind readers here. It’s up to you to educate the public and get them involved.
  • The only way to get people emotionally invested in what you study is to put a face on the subject. Good storytelling is the animal rights movements secret weapon and that’s what science needs to start doing. Stories change people, statistics don’t. Everything has a story, it’s up to you to tell it. Like I say in mediation, you can’t tell someone their feelings are wrong. People feel what they feel for a reason. Someone can’t tell you that your sadness is incorrect. The same is true with a story. No one can tell you that your story is incorrect. They can argue about the accuracy of data from now until the end of time but they can’t argue with someone’s experience.
  • Passionate scientific communication = more support…plain and simple. If you are looking for more donors, for more advocates, for more signatures on a petition, for more votes, for more voices…it all starts with using an emotionally compelling narrative that shows people how science impacts their lives.

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