Pew Center Scientist Turned Communicator: Jay Gulledge’s Journey from Academia to Capitol Hill

Pew Climate Change Senior Scientist Jay Gulledge has mixed science and communicating since earning his Ph.D. in biological sciences 15 years ago.

On the research side, the biogeochemist has studied carbon cycling and the cycling fluxes of methane between ecosystems and the atmosphere, and he continues to work with colleagues in China on issues involving the country’s methane budget.

Before joining the Arlington, Va.-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change in 2005, Gulledge had taught at the University of Louisville and at Tulane University. Now much of his work involves helping scientists and scientific organizations improve their ability to make research accessible and meaningful to the public, says Gulledge, a self-described “pure-bred scientist” now actively tilling the communications and policy fields.

Gulledge spoke recently by telephone with Yale Forum regular contributor Lisa Palmer, and his comments below are lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Yale Forum: Part of your job at the Pew Center is to assess public understanding of climate science. You also actively coach or mentor scientists on speaking about their climate change research with nonscientific audiences. Tell us about these activities and how you go about them.

Gulledge: My role in this area has morphed over time and has been varied. I did my own communication, my own presentations, and my own briefings and written documents for Pew, and those were designed to be accessible to the public and to decisionmakers. And, I have taken a lot of scientists up to Capitol Hill to talk with congressional staff and members about climate science.

I would ask to see their presentations ahead of time, and I would provide general written guidance about the level of detail and framing of the science they would be discussing. What I found was that they mostly did a pretty good job, and their presentations were useful to the audience. The primary mechanism involved the selection of who we brought up in the first place. We looked for people who didn’t need days of training ahead of time.

Yale Forum: Why not work with those who need the communications training, rather than just those who are already comfortable with it?

Gulledge: It was purely practical. There are programs that train novices. I encourage people to use those programs. We have a mission at Pew to inform non-science audiences about what the science says about climate change. It is not our mission to train scientists to do that. It is purely a practical matter. It remains a problem that not enough capable scientists are available that are really good at speaking with nonscientific audiences about their research and its relevance.

However, more recently, and as a direct result of the so-called “climategate” controversy, I have been working with a variety of scientific societies and institutions on their communications with the public about climate science. These organizations include AGU [American Geophysical Union], AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science], ARCUS [the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S.], nonprofit university members of UCAR [University Corporation for Atmospheric Research], and NCAR [National Center for Atmospheric Research]. All of these institutions are working on this problem independently. I am part of an informal professional peer network that is buzzing about this topic, everyone from the very top leadership to individual staff and individual members.

Yale Forum: What new levels of support do you think professional organizations should offer their members?

Gulledge: Training and communication, standards for data transparency, dealing with the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests that all of these guys have gotten. [Climategate] has illustrated the need for top-down standards. They would apply to professional organizations in a position to make recommendations for people in their field.

Industry professionals in fields like engineering have long ago set standards for how they archive their work and so on. That has not been a practice in the basic fields of science, such as earth sciences, because they are not closely tied to contract law. Now they need to start doing it because the need is becoming apparent. The point would be to protect earth scientists from unwarranted accusations of conflict of interest.

With a new set of industry standards, an earth scientist can provide information and say, ‘I followed the standard. If you find that you don’t like something about how I handled my data, it is not neglect or fraud.’ Support also could potentially involve providing legal support.

Another item is leadership in the field, in which scientists are encouraged to value public communication. Scientists need to pay attention to or take note of the risks that they run at the public-science interface. One illustration: Those hacked e-mails were released to the public. [Scientists] didn’t know that was a risk. Presumably they would have minded their euphemisms, like ‘hiding something,’ which in the field we know doesn’t mean the same thing as it does to a lay audience. We need to find a way to increase transparency, increase quality in science, be aware of the risks, and manage them. The ultimate goal in science is to provide maximum benefit for society and to be a sustainable enterprise.

Yale Forum: What are you learning from working with organizations about the need to better explain research findings or defend scientists?

Gulledge: Well, for instance, I attended an annual, three-day meeting in Colorado called the Energy Modeling Forum, held each summer. They had a full-day session on communication, on informing decisionmakers, led by John Weyant, an economist at Stanford University. The meeting has been held in Snowmass, Colorado, 16 years running. It has largely focused on agreeing on what modeling experiments to do. It is an interesting group because they want these experiments to be informative for decisionmakers. They were assessing costs of Kyoto Protocol 10 years ago, for instance.

This year they spent two days talking about climate change and communication. Mind you, this is a group that is very much focused on integrated assessment modeling. It is a very technical crowd, and yet they spent quite a bit of their time talking about communication.

Individual scientists are talking about this together everywhere you go. Amazing. No one really knows what to do. This is not a traditional interest in the science community. They have no training in marketing, no training in communication. Most in the science community don’t know the political context of what they are doing when they are airing their interpretations of the science to a broader field having no context on the subject.

The reason I am focused on institutions is that individuals don’t have a background in communications. We don’t want individual scientists spending a large part of their time on things other than their research work. The institutions can identify those who best can do that communications role. They can then provide those people with the support to manage these challenges.

Yale Forum: So, you think scientists should focus on science and others should focus on the communications part. Is that your point?

Gulledge: Yes, many scientists don’t want to do it. Very few scientists get into this area of science because they want to interact with the public. Chances are, their focus on an area of research means that they have been isolated from the public. They grew up intellectually in a culture where there was no public interest in what they were doing as individuals.

Now they see that the work they are doing as scientists is useful to society and to important policy issues. They say, ‘That is cool.’ At first there is no perceived risk. Then they are getting their name dragged through the mud on blogs and by those who are uninformed. Scientists are saying, ‘I am getting threatened, and they are threatening my family.’ They are telling me, ‘I know where you live.’

Yale Forum: What obstacles does the climate science community, in particular, face when talking about their work?

Gulledge: Right now, inadequate capacity to deal with this communication issue is the biggest obstacle. It used to be willingness. That is gone. The biggest barrier now is capacity. Capacity is person- hours. Within most of the professional scientific organizations, for instance, communication with the public is not traditionally what most scientists routinely do. They don’t have the strategic capacity. It is not their background. They have to do strategic planning of a nature they haven’t done in the past. That is going to limit how quickly things change at many of these institutions.

Yale Forum: What specific tips do you have for scientists communicating to a non-specialist audience?

Gulledge: The first thing I always say is that they are not engaging in the teaching of science. This is the most common misconception. I viewed myself as a good teacher. That helps, but that’s not what most scientists need to focus on in addressing a nonscientific audience. The problem is the frame and if they frame their talk as, ‘I’m here as a teacher,’ they will bore people.

The second tip is that they need to give their judgments on what they think needs to be done. They want to boil it down. The audience doesn’t want to understand evidence. It wants to know evidence is there.

The scientists are there to communicate and to tell them what they are confident about. This is about telling people what the scientists understand. As scientists, we focus every day on what we don’t yet understand. When we go to public events, we need to focus on what we do understand. It is probably the most common mistake by scientists. They focus on the same thing as they do in speaking with their scientific colleagues — what they don’t understand yet, but that’s not what the public wants from the scientific community. They’re much more interested in what it is that the scientific community generally does understand about an issue.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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One Response to Pew Center Scientist Turned Communicator: Jay Gulledge’s Journey from Academia to Capitol Hill

  1. The science community is wise to listen to Jay. As a meteorologist on TV, his ideas have made a major impact in my presentation of climate science to my on air and online audience.