A Wonderful Jigsaw Puzzle: Science Communication According to Dr. Chris Reddy

Challenges abound for a scientist engaged in active research. Funding is always stressful, ensuring successful experiments a notable concern, while balancing students and proper mentoring. Then of course: lab safety, novelty of your work, and deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. At the end of the day, no matter the field of science, there is no handbook for the management of this litany of anxiety-inducers and a foremost tenet of research: science communication.

Dr. Chris Reddy, a University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography (URI GSO) alumni and Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) took some time to sit down with STEEP and ponder these very stresses and science communication struggles. And he should know a thing or two. Apart from an extensive scientific career working on projects like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Chris is also the published author of Science Communication in a Crisis: An Insider’s Guide, released in Spring 2023.

In the course of Reddy’s career, there have been no shortage of contamination issues to communicate to the wider world. From oil spills to persistent organic pollutants like DDT and PAHs, Reddy acquired science communication skills on the fly (though he also credits several experiences to the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the Earth Leadership Program [formerly Aldo Leopold Leadership Program]).

Fellow GSO alum and former STEEP trainee, Matt Dunn, PhD, sought Reddy to talk about pollutants communication, garner advice for researchers, and uncover meaningful science for the everyperson.

MD: A lot of people in the PFAS world, me included, are sort of feeling the pressure right now to balance the stress of doing research and communicating our research to the world. What can you take from your own experience in terms of science communication that can also apply to PFAS? 

CR: I have studied a lot of chronic pollutants, there’s this sense of always doom and gloom. You know, this isn’t good news. In addition, now more than ever, people are impatient.

I jokingly blame Steve Jobs for many of the challenges scientists face when communicating science. Jobs conditioned people with the luxury to pull out their iPhones and type into Wikipedia, ‘How many people were at the Patriots game last weekend?’ and get the answer in four seconds. The result is certain and it’s not going to change.

Now: you’ve got a science question that may not be certain, you may not get the answer very quickly, and like it or not, it may change. Folks have become so conditioned to an immediate response that it becomes challenging to inform folks about complex issues in a swift, understandable, and meaningful manner. Like it or not, good, or bad, we have a society that expects immediate results with absolute certainty.

So, my advice to folks communicating science beyond the limited attention span is to appreciate that everyone you’re going to speak to has a different perspective and a different way to take in knowledge. Identify common interests. Find ways that science affects their lives and livelihoods. If you’re incessantly pointing to X-Y graphs (or worse gas chromatograms) you’re will rarely succeed”

PFAS has come at a bad time, because it’s just another acronym.  Believe it or not, many folks still equate all contaminants to DDT—despite their significant differences in source, transport, fate, and history of release.  These are massive challenges, and there is no easy answer. If people are uniformed… it may be because it’s not pertinent to them. Or science has not explained the differences.

MD: How would you describe lessons learned about the public’s point of view on science?

CR: There’s certainly the narrative that the lay public thinks science is a house of cards. But it’s not. Rather it’s this wonderful jigsaw puzzle.  It’s incremental, ever-expanding, and self-correcting … sometimes, frustratingly to some people, we jump around. But just because one piece is put in wrong doesn’t mean the puzzle falls off the dining room table. Eventually, we will find the right piece … and it’s slow. But we should not apologize for slow.

MD: You mentioned in your Nature interview that you often used to tie your self-worth to your science work. I struggled and do struggle with the same thing with my own science. What sort of advice do you have for young scientists in that position?

CR: I would tell someone that you got into science because you’re passionate about it. And when you have these hiccups, that’s when you go to your reserve tanks of passion, you’ve just got to hang in there. This happens. You can still win a Nobel Prize if a paper is rejected. It’s not the best thing to hear, but it may be a good thing. You just have to go back … you have to trust your advisor and close colleagues and trust the system. 

There’s a perception out there that science communication is just checking a box. If you come from the mindset that it is a chore, it’s a real missed opportunity. The times when I’m at the lowest is when communicating science lifts me; that’s my life preserver. I can usually tell when I succeed. My goal when I have these interactions … is what I call “making dinner.” You and I are standing in line in Stop n’ Shop, and we start talking about PFAS. You can see somebody’s light bulb go off, and you know you’re successful if they go home and talk about you and the science at dinner. How can you make every interaction memorable and repeatable and in a way that it’s mutually beneficial?

Reddy’s book, Science Communication in a Crisis: An Insider’s Guide (Routledge, 2023) identifies the principal challenges that scientists face when communicating with different stakeholder groups and offers advice on how to navigate the maze of competing interests and deliver actionable science when the clock is ticking.

One of the world’s foremost oil spill scientists, Chris Reddy, Ph.D. ‘98, came back to the URI Bay Campus on Thursday, March 28th.

Reddy has responded to numerous oil spills and other environmental crises over his 25-year career and serves as Senior Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Reddy is a faculty member of the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography and Engineering and has been a Ph.D. committee member for numerous EAPS and CEE graduate students. He has published over 220 peer-reviewed manuscripts and holds 12 U.S. Patents. Chris has testified before the U.S. Congress five times, written more than 30 opinion pieces, and given hundreds of interviews for print, radio, and television. Reddy’s scientific discoveries are heavily recognized by the American Chemical Society’s Grady-Stack Award, the AGU Ambassador Award, the Clair C. Patterson Award, and the Aldo Leopold Fellowship.

Reddy is a proud graduate of Rhode Island’s public education system from kindergarten through graduate school, earning a B.S. in chemistry from Rhode Island College and Ph.D. in oceanography from the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.