Entries tagged with “Dot Earth”.

Andrew Revkin has a post up on Dot Earth that suggests some ways of rethinking scientific engagement with the press and the public.  The post is something of a distillation of a more detailed piece in the WMO Bulletin.  Revkin was kind enough to solicit my comments on the piece, as I have appeared in Dot Earth before in an effort to deal with this issue as it applies to the IPCC, and this post is something of a distillation of my initial rapid response.

First, I liked the message of these two pieces a lot, especially the push for a more holistic engagement with the public through different forms of media, including the press.  As Revkin rightly states, we need to “recognize that the old model of drafting a press release and waiting for the phone to ring is not the path to efficacy and impact.” Someone please tell my university communications office.

A lot of the problem stems from our lack of engagement with professionals in the messaging and marketing world.  As I said to the very gracious Rajendra Pachauri in an email exchange back when we had the whole “don’t talk to the media” controversy:

I am in no way denigrating your [PR] efforts. I am merely suggesting that there are people out there who spend their lives thinking about how to get messages out there, and control that message once it is out there. Just as we employ experts in our research and in these assessment reports precisely because they bring skills and training to the table that we lack, so too we must consider bringing in those with expertise in marketing and outreach.

I assume that a decent PR team would be thinking about multiple platforms of engagement, much as Revkin is suggesting.  However, despite the release of a new IPCC communications strategy, I’m not convinced that the IPCC (or much of the global change community more broadly) yet understands how desperately we need to engage with professionals on this front.  In some ways, there are probably good reasons for the lack of engagement with pros, or with the “new media.” For example, I’m not sure Twitter will help with managing climate change rumors/misinformation as it is released, if only because we are now too far behind the curve – things are so politicized that it is too late for “rapid response” to misinformation. I wish we’d been on this twenty years ago, though . . .

But this “behind the curve” mentality does not explain our lack of engagement.  Instead, I think there are a few other things lurking here.  For example, there is the issue of institutional politics. I love the idea of using new media/information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) to gather and communicate information, but perhaps not in the ways Revkin suggests.  I have a section later in Delivering Development that outlines how, using existing mobile tech in the developing world, we could both get better information about what is happening to the global poor (the point of my book is that, as I think I demonstrate in great detail, we actually have a very weak handle on what is going on in most parts of the developing world) and could empower the poor to take charge of efforts to address the various challenges, environmental, economic, political and social, that they face every day.  It seems to me, though, that the latter outcome is a terrifying prospect for some in development organizations, as this would create a much more even playing field of information that might force these organizations to negotiate with and take seriously the demands of the people with whom they are working.  Thus, I think we get a sort of ambiguity about ICT4D in development practice, where we seem thrilled by its potential, yet continue to ignore it in our actual programming.  This is not a technical problem – after all, we have the tech, and if we want to do this, we can – it is a problem of institutional politics.  I did not wade into a detailed description of the network I envision in the book because I meant to present it as a political challenge to a continued reticence on the part of many development organizations and practitioners to really engage the global poor (as opposed to tell them what they need and dump it on them).  But my colleagues and I have a detailed proposal for just such a network . . . and I think we will make it real one day.

Another, perhaps more significant barrier to major institutional shifts with regard to outreach is the a chicken-and-egg situation of limited budgets and a dominant academic culture that does not understand media/public engagement or politics very well and sees no incentive for engagement.  Revkin nicely hits on the funding problem as he moves past simply beating up on old-school models of public engagement:

As the IPCC prepares its Fifth Assessment Report, it does so with what, to my eye, appears to be an utterly inadequate budget for communicating its findings and responding in an agile way to nonstop public scrutiny facilitated by the Internet.

However, as much as I agree with this point (and I really, really agree), the problem here is not funding unto itself – it is the way in which a lack of funding erases an opportunity for cultural change that could have a positive feedback effect on the IPCC, global assessments, and academia more generally that radically alters all three. The bulk of climate science, as well as social impact studies, come from academia – which has a very particular culture of rewards.  Virtually nobody in academia is trained to understand that they can get rewarded for being a public intellectual, for making one’s work accessible to a wide community – and if I am really honest, there are many places that actively discourage this engagement.  But there is a culture change afoot in academia, at least among some of us, that could be leveraged right now – and this is where funding could trigger a positive feedback loop.

Funding matters because once you get a real outreach program going, productive public engagement would result in significant personal, intellectual and financial benefits for the participants that I believe could result in very rapid culture change.  My twitter account has done more for the readership of my blog, and for my awareness of the concerns and conversations of the non-academic development world, than anything I have ever done before – this has been a remarkable personal and intellectual benefit of public engagement for me.  As universities continue to retrench, faculty find themselves ever-more vulnerable to downsizing, temporary appointments, and a staggering increase in administrative workload (lots of tasks distributed among fewer and fewer full-time faculty).  I fully expect that without some sort of serious reversal soon, I will retire thirty-odd years hence as an interesting and very rare historical artifact – a professor with tenure.  Given these pressures, I have been arguing to my colleagues that we must engage with the public and with the media to build constituencies for what we do beyond our academic communities.  My book and my blog are efforts to do just this – to become known beyond the academy such that I, as a public intellectual, have leverage over my university, and not the other way around.  And I say this as someone who has been very successful in the traditional academic model.  I recognize that my life will need to be lived on two tracks now – public and academic – if I really want to help create some of the changes in the world that I see as necessary.

But this is a path I started down on my own, for my own idiosyncratic reasons – to trigger a wider change, we cannot assume that my academic colleagues will easily shed the value systems in which they were intellectually raised, and to which they have been held for many, many years.  Without funding to get outreach going, and demonstrate to this community that changing our model is not only worthwhile, but enormously valuable, I fear that such change will come far more slowly than the financial bulldozers knocking on the doors of universities and colleges across the country.  If the IPCC could get such an effort going, demonstrate how public outreach improved the reach of its results, enhanced the visibility and engagement of its participants, and created a path toward the progressive politics necessary to address the challenge of climate change, it would be a powerful example for other assessments.  Further, the participants in these assessments would return to their campuses with evidence for the efficacy and importance of such engagement . . . and many of these participants are senior members of their faculties, in a position to midwife major cultural changes in their institutions.

All this said, this culture change will not be birthed without significant pains.  Some faculty and members of these assessments want nothing to do with the murky world of politics, and prefer to continue operating under the illusion that they just produce data and have no responsibility for how it is used.  And certainly the assessments will fear “politicization” . . . to which I respond “too late.”  The question is not if the findings of an assessment will be politicized, but whether or not those who best understand those findings will engage in these very consequential debates and argue for what they feel is the most rigorous interpretation of the data at hand.  Failure to do so strikes me as dereliction of duty.  On the other hand, just as faculty might come to see why public engagement is important for their careers and the work they do, universities will be gripped with contradictory impulses – a publicly-engaged faculty will serve as a great justification for faculty salaries, increased state appropriations, new facilities, etc.  Then again, nobody likes to empower the labor, as it were . . .

In short, in thinking about public engagement and the IPCC, Revkin is dredging up a major issue related to all global assessments, and indeed the practices of academia.  I think there is opportunity here – and I feel like we must seize this opportunity.  We can either guide a process of change to a productive end, or ride change driven by others wherever it might take us.  I prefer the former.

Sasha Dichter has an interesting post about marketing and the poor – my initial reaction was annoyance, as I grow weary of the gratuitous academia-bashing that takes place in some corners of the aid world. The post is sullied by a few needless kicks to the academic straw-man that I found off-putting.  But, digging past that, I found myself largely in agreement with two big points.

First, Dichter raises and then dismisses an all-to-common frustrating assumption (that ties into one of my posts yesterday about the appropriation of qualitative research and findings by economists):

Ivory tower development practitioners don’t respect the poor, think of them as inanimate beneficiaries, and so practitioners don’t take real needs and aspirations into account.

As he implies, this attitude is neither useful nor really accurate – it doesn’t get us down the road toward explaining why things go wrong.  I made the same point about development agencies and workers in Delivering Development:

The vast majority of people working for development organizations are intelligent and good-hearted. They care deeply about the plight of the global poor and labor each day on projects and policies that might, finally, reverse the trends of inequality and unsustainability that mark life in much of the world . . . If these agencies and individuals are, by and large, trying their hardest to do good and have billions of dollars to work with, why are they failing?

So, moving forward with that sense of kinship, I found his next point spot on:

Ivory tower development practitioners are crappy marketers.

Enought with the “ivory tower” bashing, Sasha – you are obscuring a really good point here.  Way back last summer, when I got myself embroiled in a bruhaha over how members of the IPCC were supposed to communicate with the press that eventually made its way into the New York Times via Dot Earth, I found myself having email conversations with Rajendra Pachauri (who was actually very gracious and engaged).  In the course of our exchanges, I argued exactly the same point Sasha is making, but in the context of how we message information about climate change.

I am merely suggesting that there are people out there who spend their lives thinking about how to get messages out there, and control that message once it is out there. Just as we employ experts in our research and in these assessment reports precisely because they bring skills and training to the table that we lack, so too we must consider bringing in those with expertise in marketing and outreach.

I’m not sure how well I was heard on this, though they do have a head of outreach in the secretariat now . . .

In short, good point Sasha.  Now, could you go easy on the ivory tower bashing while making it?  Believe it or not, many of us know about this problem and would love to work with people with the expertise to fix it.

I’ve gotten a bit of attention for this blog by commenting on my frustrations with the IPCC’s relationship to the media.  Andy Revkin has a great post on his Dot Earth blog at the New York Times on the latest iteration of this issue.  Revkin argues:

“Here’s the vital step: The panel would do well to cultivate, rather than restrict, contact between its authors and reporters in poor countries. There is a glaring need for the panel and related institutions — the United Nations Environment Program and World Meteorological Organization — to facilitate informed media coverage of climate risks, both natural and human-driven, in poor places. This is nowhere more pressing than in sub-Saharan Africa, where exposure to climate-driven hazards, particularly drought, is acute even now, let alone with whatever shifts may come through the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. (And keep in mind that populations in the region are projected to double by 2050, greatly increasing exposure to climate-related hazards.)”

I couldn’t agree more.  What spurred this commentary from Revkin was a request for help from a Nigerian journalist, who wanted to contact African scientists on the IPCC but couldn’t.  Revkin circulated this call to a number of people, including me – so I was fortunate to be included on the group emails that he includes in his post.  I offered a number of comments, but one seems pertinent to the issue of media relations.  While several people on the email immediately moved to get this information to the journalist, the new media officer for the IPCC, Isabel Garcia-Gill, seemed to be slowing down this process.  When Nick Nuttall, the senior press officer for the United Nations Environment Program, asked if she could provide an updated register of national expert climate scientists from across the key and relevant disciplines for the media, Garcia-Gill responded:

“So far we are going to keep that list at the Secretariat so that all requests come through the media and communications team. We cannot yet post it on the internet, not before the authors are media trained. But of course, you will be informed.”

I responded to this comment in an email to Revkin:

“I was a little bothered by Isabel’s response to Nick – basically, she reaffirmed her and her organization’s right to gatekeep “their” experts.  This does not build our credibility or our legitimacy.  I am not at all convinced by claims that the authors need to be media trained – they just need to make it clear they speak for themselves, and not the larger processes to which they belong.  We need to hear the different voices in this process, and the different foci they might bring to these assessments – otherwise, we run the risk of the problem I mentioned earlier – we get African voices parroting the same lines as those of us from advanced economies, which does nothing to move us forward on issues of adaptation and mitigation.”

Thanks to Revkin for working this concern into his post, near the end.  We’re getting better, but institutional cultures seem hard to overcome . . .