How Scientists Engage with the Public, Media, and Policy

Scientists frequently use social media and engage with journalists, policy-makers, and the public. At the same time, many people have a thirst for reliable cutting-edge results on the latest scientific findings and on pressing questions such as responses to the Ebola crisis, climate change, and the drought in California. However, scientists themselves do not sufficiently value public outreach and policy advocacy among their peers. And the pressures of competition and the fast-paced news cycle can distort the scientific messages that reach people.

Courtesy: Pew Research Center

Courtesy: Pew Research Center

Lee Rainie, director of internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center, just released the results of a survey of 3,748 scientists in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this week at the annual meeting in San Jose. He and his colleagues find that 87% believe that scientists should take an active role in public policy debates about science and technology, 51% of scientists talk to journalists, 24% of them blog, and 47% of scientists use social media—a higher fraction than five years ago. Social scientists, earth scientists, and physicists and astronomers engage in these activities more than those in other fields. (You can read the full report here.)

Courtesy: Pew Research Center

Courtesy: Pew Research Center

That’s the good news; now for the bad news. The majority of scientists believe that the limited public knowledge about science and the fact that the public expects solutions too quickly are major problems. Furthermore, although scientists interact with reporters, many criticize news media: they believe that news reports oversimplify findings and don’t distinguish well-founded findings, and they believe that this too is a problem for science. In addition, many scientists surveyed do not think that the best scientific information is used for crafting policies, such as those involving clean air and water, food safety, and medical treatments.

Courtesy: Pew Research Center

Courtesy: Pew Research Center

Here’s where we transition from the survey results to my opinions about their implications..

Many people love science and they can’t get enough of it. In my field of astrophysics, I see people inspired by stories about the comet landing, theories about black holes, and observations of galaxies colliding with each other. People consume science news on newspapers like the LA Times, magazines, websites, blogs, television, podcasts, videos, and elsewhere. People want to know the latest science on important subjects, especially those that could directly affect them, including health and environmental issues. If, say, a psychologist at UCLA, an astrophysicist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has an exciting new result, they would like to advertise it and people would be interested in hearing about it.

Politicians also want to hear about the most up-to-date science when they develop new policies and regulations and when they determine budgets for relevant agencies and initiatives. Science journalists and advocates attempt to fulfill these demands by communicating research on fields from astronomy and biology to psychology and sociology, but it’s often not easy.

Some aspects of the scientific process itself complicate the situation. When presenting scientific research, it can be difficult to communicate the context of a contentious question, the assumptions of an analysis, and the statistical and systematic uncertainties that might be involved. One may describe competing scientists’ interpretations, but then one must be careful about creating a false equivalency between them if an interpretation is more well-founded than another.

Moreover, excitement over the announcement of a potentially groundbreaking result, such as neutrinos supposedly traveling faster than the speed of light, is often not sustained for long, which is problematic if the result is later retracted. In addition, debates between scientists, such as the recent one about the expansion of the early universe based on results from BICEP2 and the Planck telescope, may take years or even decades to resolve. Scientists compete to get their new results out first, and media outlets compete to get the story out first. In this situation, it can be difficult to communicate nuance and subtlety.

In short, we have plenty of blame to spread around. Scientists should continue to engage but could work on improving the ways in which they communicate. They should encourage each other to get of the lab and office and participate in public outreach, communicate with policy-makers, and interact more with local media. Scientists currently consider these kinds of work as much less important than working on research, and everyone would benefit if they valued them more highly. Scientists should also be as clear as possible about their uncertainties and about when they are presenting not just facts but also expressing opinions about their interpretation

Scientific research isn’t of much use to anyone if no one effectively communicates it and its implications. We should encourage science journalists to take the time necessary to investigate and clearly communicate relevant information in plain language, and when we read or watch those stories, we should try to pay attention to the important caveats. It’s great to get excited about each new science story and discovery, but we would all benefit from a bit of caution and patience.

Models Predict “Megadrought” Risk for American Southwest This Century

Near the beginning of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in San Jose, CA, on a winter day that happened to be warm, dry, and sunny, research scientists held a press conference to announce the conclusions of their work on predicting the risks of future “megadroughts.” They published their paper with the ominous title, “Unprecedented 21st-Century Drought Risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains,” in the first issue of Science Advances, a new digital, open-access journal. (The publisher, Marcia McNutt, gave brief opening remarks about how the journal will “showcase new and exciting research.”)

Benjamin Cook (NASA Goddard Institute), Toby Ault (Cornell University), and Jason Smerdon (Columbia University) obtained surprising results from computer model simulations. According to Cook and Smerdon, who videoconferenced with a shared microphone, previous models—such as those used for the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report—underpredicted drought risks. Cook and his colleagues used drought records documented in more than 1800 tree-ring chronologies over the the past millennium, where ring width decreases in dry years, to develop 17 model projections of 21st century climate in the American Southwest and Central Plains. Their disturbing findings include predictions of megadroughts, lasting 35 years or longer, in both regions worse than any seen in the last 1000 years. In short, they expect climate change to increase drought length and severity in the coming decades.

Mean summer soil moisture and Palmer Drought Severity Index out to 2099. Courtesy: Cook et al. (2015)

Mean summer soil moisture and Palmer Drought Severity Index out to 2099. Courtesy: Cook et al. (2015)

The drought risk is twofold, due to reduced precipitation and to warmer temperatures drying out soils of rivers and lakes, in which models predict increasing evaporation. Long droughts due to climate variations have occurred in the past, such as those occurring during the 12th and 13th centuries (the Medieval Climatic Anomaly) that serve as important benchmarks. But with their tree-ring based reconstruction of the climate history, in a “business-as-usual” emissions scenario, they predict a “persistent shift in the future toward longer droughts” that could exceed even those of these extremely dry centuries.

Ault described how risk assessments are made, in terms of the magnitude of impact and the likelihood. “The levels [of risk] that we see are striking,” with an 80% or higher risk of a drought 35 years or longer in duration by the end of this century if climate change is not mitigated. He described the situation like a golf course, which an initial 10% of it consisting of sandpits. If climate change continues unmitigated, the golf course will gradually become almost entirely sandpits!

Risk (%) of decadal and multidecadal drought calculated from three sets of models. Courtesy: Cook et al. (2015)

Risk (%) of decadal and multidecadal drought calculated from three sets of models. Courtesy: Cook et al. (2015)

In the paper, Cook and his co-authors comment on the difficulties people in the Southwest and Central Plains will face when attempting to adapt to these climate conditions. In particular, the current depletion of nonrenewable groundwater reservoirs “will likely exacerbate the impacts of future droughts.” They discussed implications for both the water supply and food supply in the press conference, considering the dependence on agriculture in California and the breadbasket in the Central Plains. “Water security is food security,” as Ault put it, and people need to “take a no-regrets attitude toward preparedness.” Droughts will inevitably occur, and some of them could be as destructive as large earthquakes and hurricanes.

Their ongoing research will focus on examining the future severity, persistence and geographical scope of droughts, and they will attempt to improve the spatial resolution of their simulations, which currently employ coarse-grained averaging. They also plan to consider hydrology and snowpack, in addition to soil moisture. In any case, the soil moisture metrics and PDRI all point to one conclusion: unless people find a way to substantially mitigate climate change and prevent rising temperatures, the American Southwest and Central Plains can expect to face megadroughts like they’ve never seen before.

Finally, if you’re interested, below you can see my photo from the press conference (and I’m the one in the lower left with a cellphone in front of his face.) In other coverage of these results, see this nicely written Science article by Emily Underwood, and I saw a Washington Post reporter writing an article about it too (but I forgot his name), so watch for that.


The Science of Citizen Science: Meetings in San Jose This Week

[This is adapted from a post I wrote on the Zooniverse blog.]

I’m excited about attending the Citizen Science Association (CSA) and American Association for the Advancement of Scientists (AAAS) meetings in San Jose, California this week, and I thought I’d tell you a bit about the citizen science-related events I’m looking forward to. I’ll write about other events and science news later, and in any case, check out the hashtags #CitSci2015, #AAASmtg and #AAAS2015 on Twitter for live updates.

As I mentioned in an earlier post last fall, we’ve organized an AAAS session that is titled, “Citizen Science from the Zooniverse: Cutting-Edge Research with 1 Million Scientists,” which will take place on Friday afternoon. It fits well with the AAAS’s them this year: “Innovations, Information, and Imaging.” Our excellent line-up includes Laura Whyte (Adler Planetarium) on Zooniverse, Brooke Simmons (Oxford) on Galaxy Zoo, Alexandra Swanson (U. of Minnesota) on Snapshot Serengeti, Kevin Wood (U. of Washington) on Old Weather, Paul Pharoah (Cambridge) on Cell Slider, and Phil Marshall (Stanford) on Space Warps. I’ll be chairing the session, but they’ll be doing all the hard work.

And in other recent news, citizen scientists from the Zooniverse’s Milky Way Project examined infrared images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and found lots of “yellow balls” in our galaxy. It turns out that these are indications of early stages of massive star formation, such that the new stars heat up the dust grains around them. Charles Kerton (Iowa State) and Grace Wolf-Chase (Adler) published the results last week in the Astrophysical Journal.

Courtesy: JPL

Courtesy: JPL

But let’s get back to the AAAS meeting. It looks like many other talks, sessions, and papers presented there involve citizen science too. David Baker (FoldIt) will give plenary lecture on post-evolutionary biology and protein structures on Saturday afternoon. Jennifer Shirk (Cornell), Meg Domroese and others from CSA have a session Sunday morning, in which they will describe ways to utilize citizen science for public engagement. (See also this related session on science communication.) Then in a session Sunday afternoon, people from the European Commission and other institutions will speak about global earth observation systems and citizen scientists tackling urban environmental hazards.

Before all of that, we’re excited to attend the CSA’s pre-conference on Wednesday and Thursday. (See their online program.) Chris Filardi (Director of Pacific Programs, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History) and Amy Robinson (Executive Director of EyeWire, a game to map the neural circuits of the brain) will give the keynote addresses there. For the rest of the meeting, as with the AAAS, there will be parallel sessions.

The first day of the CSA meeting will include: many sessions on education and learning at multiple levels; sessions on diversity, inclusion, and broadening engagement; a session on defining and measuring engagement, participation, and motivations; a session on CO2 and air quality monitoring; a session on CS in biomedical research; and sessions on best practices for designing and implementing CS projects, including a talk by Chris Lintott on the Zooniverse and Nicole Gugliucci on CosmoQuest. The second day will bring many more talks and presentations along these and related themes, including one by Julie Feldt about educational interventions in Zooniverse projects and one by Laura Whyte about Chicago Wildlife Watch.

Furthermore, a couple sessions include some presentations that will interest southern Californians. Barbara Lloyd (Ocean Sanctuaries) will give a talk about “Identifying Sevengill Sharks in San Diego with Wildbook,” and Mark Chandler (Earthwatch Institute) will talk about “Engaging a Diversity of Citizen Scientists around Urban Trees in Greater Los Angeles.”

I also just heard that the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson Center is releasing two new reports today, and hardcopies will be available at the CSA meeting. One report is by Muki Haklay (UCL) about “Citizen Science and Policy: A European Perspective” and the other is by Teresa Scassa & Haewon Chung (U. of Ottawa) about “Typology of Citizen Science Projects from an Intellectual Property Perspective.” Look here for more information.

New Science at the American Astronomical Society Meeting

I’d just like to summarize some of the exciting new scientific results presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle last month. I think it will be interesting to those of you science lovers who’re wondering what all the hubbub was about and for you astronomers who weren’t able to make it.

This is my third and final post in a series about the AAS meeting. The first two dealt with science policy, and diversity and sustainability. As I mentioned in a previous post, I enjoyed attending as both a scientist and science writer, and I was happy to personally meet the journalists writing excellent stories about the meeting (some of which I’ve linked to below).

I’ll start with some special sessions and other sessions focused on interesting science that included results I hadn’t seen before, and then I’ll end with some interesting plenary talks given by great speakers. It was a busy meeting and many of the sessions ran in parallel, so it’s inevitable that I missed some things and that this summary is incomplete. (Plus, I’m usually drawn to the sessions about galaxies, dark matter, and cosmology, and I often miss the other ones.) If you know of interesting announcements or talks that I missed here, you’re welcome to comment on them below.

Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS)

After 15 years of great science, it was exciting to see the SDSS have its final public data release—until SDSS-IV data eventually come out, that is. At the press conference, Michael Wood-Vasey gave an overview, Constance Rockosi spoke about the data release, Daniel Eisenstein spoke about the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), Jian Ge spoke about the Multi-object APO Radial Velocity Exoplanet Large-area Survey (MARVELS), and Steven Majewski spoke about the APO Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE). According to Rockosi, more than 6,000 papers have been published using publicly released SDSS data. The SDSS has observed tens of thousands of stars, hundreds of thousands of quasars, and millions of galaxies.

In addition, members of the BOSS collaboration presented (nearly) final results at a session dedicated to the survey. If you’re interested, check out this article I wrote about it for Universe Today. (Thanks to Nancy Atkinson for editing assistance.)

Distribution of galaxies in a slice of the BOSS survey. (Courtesy: SDSS-III)

Distribution of galaxies in a slice of the BOSS survey. (Courtesy: SDSS-III)


Researchers presented newly published results and interesting work-in-progress about the evolution of distant galaxies using spectroscopic data from the 3D-HST survey, which is led by Pieter van Dokkum (Yale Univ.) and Ivelina Momcheva (Carnegie Observatories), combined with imaging data from the Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey (CANDELS), taking advantage of instruments aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. The figure below shows the spectral features of tens of thousands of galaxies, which indicate star formation activity, active galactic nuclei activity, and stellar age. If you’re interested, I wrote an article about some of these results for Sky & Telescope. (Thanks to Monica Young for editing assistance.)

Spectral features of high-redshift galaxies. (Courtesy: Gabriel Brammer, 3D-HST)

Spectral features of high-redshift galaxies. (Courtesy: Gabriel Brammer, 3D-HST)

Andromeda Galaxy

In a session dedicated to Andromeda—known as M31 by astronomers—as well as in other related sessions, research scientists and Ph.D. students presented studies about the stars, globular clusters, molecular clouds, dust, structure, dynamics, surface brightness profile, and stellar halo of the galaxy. The continued interest in our fascinating neighbor is understandable; Andromeda’s only 2.5 million light-years away from our galaxy! Like our Milky Way, Andromeda is a spiral galaxy, and it’s the most massive galaxy in the Local Group.

Many of these AAS results came from the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT) Survey, which is led by Julianne Dalcanton (Univ. of Washington), who presented highlights in a press conference as well. Dalcanton and her colleagues released this PHAT panoramic image of the galaxy below, and it received well-deserved press attention, including in NBC and Sky & Telescope.

Map of Andromeda galaxy. (Courtesy: HST, PHAT)

Map of Andromeda galaxy. (Courtesy: HST, PHAT)


Many people were understandably excited about extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, detected by scientists with NASA’s Kepler space telescope. Every day of the meeting included talks and posters about the masses, abundances, dynamics, compositions and other properties of exoplanets as well as those of stars and supernova remnants examined with Kepler. In addition, astronomers’ announcement that they now have more than 1,000 confirmed exoplanets with Kepler and follow-up observations garnered considerable media attention (including these articles in Nature, BBC, and New York Times). They have at least 3,000 more planet candidates, and they will surely identify many more as Kepler continues its mission through 2016.

Of course, astronomers seek to find as many as possible Earth-like planets in or near the habitable regions orbiting Sun-like stars (often referred to as the “Goldilocks” zone). When these are successfully identified, the next step is to characterize their properties and try to assess the likelihood of life forming on them. Astronomers have found at least eight Earth-size planets in the habitable zone, including two of the newly announced ones, Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b. They also released these cool old-school travel posters. If you have a space ship that can travel 500 light-years a reasonable time, you should check out 186f on your next vacation!

Kepler's alien planet travel posters. (Courtesy: NASA)

Kepler’s alien planet travel posters. (Courtesy: NASA)

“Pillars of Creation”

On the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers released new images of the iconic star-forming region in the Eagle Nebula in the Serpens Cauda constellation, known as the “pillars of creation.” Journalists at Slate, CBS, and elsewhere shared these amazing images. At first I thought not much science was done with them, but by combining observations at visible and infrared wavelengths, astronomers can investigate what’s happening with the cold gas clouds and dust grains and assess how rapidly new stars are forming and where. For more, you can also see Hubble’s press release, which coincided with the press conference on the first day of the meeting.

Image of "pillars of creation." (Courtesy: NASA and ESA)

Image of “pillars of creation.” (Courtesy: NASA and ESA)

Other Results

I saw many other interesting talks and posters at the meeting, but I don’t have the time/space to get into them here. On galaxies and the large-scale structure of the universe (which I’m interested in), I saw talks involving modeling and measurements with the Galaxy And Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey, the Six-degree Field Galaxy Survey (6dF), and I presented research using the PRIsm MUlti-object Survey (PRIMUS). But the SDSS dominated the field.

In addition, Joss Bland-Hawthorn, Sarah Martell, and Dan Zucker presented some impressive early science results from the GALactic Archaeology with HERMES (GALAH) survey of the Milky Way, which uses an instrument with the Anglo-Australian Telescope. (GALAH is named after an Australian bird.) Astronomers combine GALAH observations with astrometry from Gaia and over the survey’s duration will produce detailed data for 1 million stars in our galaxy! In particular, they utilize a technique called “chemical tagging” to study the abundances of at least 15 chemical elements for each star, allowing for studies of stellar dynamics and merger events from infalling “satellite” galaxies. I look forward to seeing more results as they continue to take data and analyze them; their first public data release is planned for 2016.


I’ll briefly describe a couple of the plenary talks below, but I missed a few others that sounded like they could be interesting, including “The Discovery of High Energy Astrophysical Neutrinos” (Kara Hoffman); “Gaia – ESA’s Galactic Census Mission” (Gerry Gilmore); and “The Interactions of Exoplanets with their Parent Stars” (Katja Poppenhaeger).

Also, Paul Weissman (JPL/Caltech) gave an overview of the Rosetta mission and the comet C-G/67P, and Al Wootten (NRAO) gave an overview of many recent science papers using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA). Rosetta and its lander Philae has run a few experiments already, and scientists with the mission have found that the bulk density of the nucleus is less than half the density of water ice and that its D/H ratio is different than the abundance ratio of the Earth’s oceans. More recently, Rosetta detected a crack in the “neck” of the comet, and they’ve abandoned an idea for a close flyby search for the lost lander, which might wake up in a few months when it receives more solar power. And if you’re interested in ALMA science, such as involving the gas kinematics of protostars and protoplanetary disks and the gas and dust clouds of distant galaxies, watch for proceedings from their recent Tokyo meeting, which are due to be published next month.

Cosmology Results from Planck

Martin White (UC Berkeley) gave an excellent talk about cosmological results from the Planck telescope, which he described as having the “weight of a heavy hippo and the height of a small giraffe.” Based on analyses of the power spectrum of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, so far it seems that the standard model of cold dark matter plus a cosmological constant (ΛCDM) is still a very good fit. Scientists in the collaboration are obtaining tighter constraints than before, and the universe still appears very flat (no curvature). They are planning a second data release this year, including more simulations to assess systematic uncertainties and more precise gravitational lensing measurements. White ended by saying, “I can explain to you what really well, but I can’t tell you why at all.”

White also hinted at, but didn’t reveal anything about, the joint analysis by Planck and BICEP2 astrophysicists. That analysis was completed recently, and now it seems that the detected polarization signal might be at best a mixture of primordial gravitational waves produced by inflation and of Milky Way dust, and they’ve obtained only an upper limit on the tensor-to-scalar ratio. Check out my recent article in Universe Today about this controversy.

Courtesy: ESA

Courtesy: ESA

Inflation and Parallel Universes

Max Tegmark (MIT) has talked and written about both inflation and the multiverse for many years, such as in a 2003 cover article and a recent blog post for Scientific American and in his book, “Our Mathematical Universe.” From the way he presented the talk, it was clear that he has discussed and debated these issues many times before.

Tegmark began by explaining models of inflation. According to inflation, the universe expanded for a brief period at an exponential rate 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang, and the theory could explain why the universe appears to have no overall curvature, why it approximately appears the same in all directions, and why it has structures of galaxies in it. In one entertaining slide, he even compared the expansion rate of a universe to that of a fetus and baby, but then he said, “if the baby kept expanding at that rate, you’d have a very unhappy mommy.”

Expansion rates of a baby (human) and a baby universe

Expansion rates of a baby (human) and a baby universe

He subtitled his talk, “Science or Science Fiction?”, and that question certainly came up. Tegmark argued that inflation seems to imply at least some levels of a multiverse (see his slide below), which makes many astrophysicists (including me) nervous and skeptical, partly because parallel universes aren’t exactly testable predictions. But he made the point that some general relativity predictions, such as about what happens in the center of a black hole, aren’t testable yet we accept that theory today. He discussed “modus ponens” arguments: once we accept “if p then q,” then if p is asserted, we must accept q, whether we like it or not. In other words, if inflation generally predicts parallel universes and if we accept inflationary theory, then we must accept its implications about parallel universes. This is an important issue, and it’s another reason why BICEP2 and Planck scientists are trying to resolve the controversy about polarization in the CMB.

Predictions of different levels of the multiverse.

Predictions of different levels of the multiverse.

The Dark and Light Side of Galaxy Formation

Finally, in another interesting talk, Piero Madau (UC Santa Cruz), who was recently awarded the Heineman Prize for Astrophysics, spoke about galaxy formation and dark matter. In particular, he spoke about difficulties and problems astrophysicists have encountered while attempting to model and simulate galaxies forming while assuming a cold dark matter (CDM) universe. For example, he described: the cusp-core controversy about the inner profiles of dark matter clumps and galaxy groups; the problem of angular momentum, which is conserved by dark matter but not gas and stars; the missing satellites problem, in which more simulated dark matter subclumps (“subhaloes”) than observed satellite galaxies are found; and the “too-big-to-fail” problem, such that simulated subhaloes are much more dense than the galaxies we see around the Milky Way. These problems motivated astrophysicists to rethink assumptions about how galaxies form and to consider warm or self-interacting dark matter.

Madau ended by saying that evidence that the universe conforms to expectations of the CDM model is “compelling but not definitive,” and warm dark matter remains a possibility. Considering all of the exciting work being done in this field, this could be “the DM decade”…but then he said people have been talking of a DM decade for the past thirty years.