Jessica Hellmann: Bringing science to the people
This article is adapted and republished with permission from the Ecological Society of America and the author, Alison Mize.
As an Ecological Society of America fellow and an American Association for the Advancement of Science Public Engagement Fellow of the Leshner Leadership Institute, Institute on the Environment director Jessica Hellmann contributed to a recent Q&A in the ESA blog.
Why do you choose to participate in public engagement?
I want to discover a sustainable way for humans to live on Earth, and I want to work with others to build that future. I study how to preserve natural resources in the face of climate change. Science tells us what effects climate change is likely to bring, what management strategies might be effective at reducing those effects, and what management outcomes are viable or possible. But science can’t tell us what is a good or desirable outcome from a social or political point of view (though the scientific literature suggests that conserving diversity provides resiliency and healthy ecosystem function). We must work with government, corporations and voters to identify management and find shared goals. As academics, we can play an important role in bringing people together.
What do you receive from your efforts?
I get to imagine the future with a wide range of partners and stakeholders, from ethicists, to corporate leaders, to politicians and even theologians. I get the pleasure of getting out of the ivory tower and discussing important ideas with the public. It gives me personal satisfaction that my work — and my discipline — matters to people. My understanding of what is an interesting research question is also affected by interactions with people outside of academia and science, and I think this makes me a more effective ecologist and public communicator of science.
What is the biggest barrier to scientists doing more public engagement?
I know many of my colleagues will agree with this answer: time. To me, it’s not a question of whether or not to be engaged with thought leaders, implementers and the broader public, but to figure out how much time I should dedicate and which activities are effective and worth my effort. I do know that the amount of time one should spend and the tools one should use evolves and changes over the course of a career — they have over my own career. They also evolve and change as society changes; for example, the rise of social media has provided me a new way to interact with non-scientists in a way that feels fun and, at least sometimes, productive. I try to regularly evaluate my time and tactics in engagement, not in search of the “right” answer but in an attempt to be strategic and thoughtful about where I put my effort and heart.
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