Researchers hone scicomm skills with Metcalf training

Sunshine MenezesSunshine Menezes
Executive director
Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting

Rhode Island STAC award

2014 STAC grant: Data Narratives — Climate Change in Narragansett Bay as a Case Study for Engaging Communication of Scientific Information. This team’s efforts focus on gaps in data collection and its dissemination to scientists, decision makers and the public. Bringing together deep local expertise in the natural and social sciences as well as the arts, this project improves communication and understanding of localized effects of climate change by developing interactive, highly engaging data narratives.

Collaborators: Susanne Menden-Deuer, URI GSO; Neal Overstrom, Rhode Island School of Design; Sunshine Menezes, Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting

Tracking the impact of climate change on marine life and ecosystems demands the attention of researchers throughout the Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR community. Yet, the work doesn’t end with the data gathered, conclusions drawn and findings published.

These scientists also have to communicate about their research and the meaning of their work, not only so we understand what is taking place, but also to inform development of policies that will better prepare the Ocean State and its people for an uncertain future.

And yet, explains Sunshine Menezes, executive director of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, scientists traditionally do not receive the training needed to engage an audience without a scientific background: “We go through rigorous training in graduate school about how to conduct our research. But, in terms of communicating research goals and findings, graduate students’ training only prepares them to interact with other scientists.

“We use jargon and shortcuts with acronyms; we’re not explaining terms and concepts. We assume the other person understands.”

As part of the University of Rhode Island (URI) Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO), the Metcalf Institute serves as an international leader in science training for journalists. The EPSCoR grant brought Metcalf on board to flip the paradigm and deliver communication expertise to scientists.

“This grant allowed us to focus our efforts on the other side of the coin,” says Menezes, who also holds a Ph.D. in biological oceanography from the URI GSO. “The RI EPSCoR funding is intended to give the grantees whatever they need to boost themselves to the next level, and that is exactly what has happened with Metcalf Institute.”

Tapping into innovative strategies to develop science communication skills, from data visualization techniques to social networking and speaking with the media, Metcalf Institute hosts both an annual one-day workshop and multiple SciComm Exchanges for Rhode Island science faculty, staff and science graduate students at colleges and universities throughout the state.

As a result, members of the RI EPSCoR community report acquiring new skills, gaining confidence in communication abilities, and taking advantage of opportunities to share information. This comes at a time when polls indicate news audiences want more and better environmental coverage, according to Menezes.

The Metcalf team also is working to develop new and novel ways to tell the climate change story, collaborating on a 2014 RI Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC) grant that brought together the state’s science, art, and design communities.

The team investigated creative methods for telling scientifically rigorous, yet compelling stories about existing climate change research on Narragansett Bay. The process involved art and design students at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) looking at GSO plankton trawl data and devising projects that told the story of the data.

That experience led to a Metcalf workshop — “Climate Change in Narragansett Bay: What’s the Story?” — that drew a broad audience of people interested in communicating about climate change. The daylong event showcased the use of data visualization, fine art, and other creative tools and methods to communicate relevant and meaningful information.

The intention now is to test the data narratives idea to develop multi-disciplinary best practices, and develop a model that can be shared nationally.

“The lasting outcome is that we now have this community of people in the state who are connected and want to work together, thinking differently about how to communicate climate change issues,” Menezes says.

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle | RI NSF EPSCoR