Wrapping up my first year of graduate school, I was finally getting to the part of my research I was most looking forward to. At last, I was going to get to step away from the computer and get out into the field.
I was researching marine debris in south Florida, and we were seeing a tremendous amount of lost fishing gear on the reef. While not terribly shocking, this type of debris poses a serious threat to reef structures and habitat. We had created great maps, showing where the debris had been seen over the last 10 years, but what were we going to do with them? I wanted my research to contribute to a solution, not just point out the issue.
While the sheer presence of debris was a problem, there was no way I could suggest ways to fix it without understanding how it got there. I knew commercial fishing gear was dominating the debris found on the reef, but I didn’t know how it was getting there. It’s easy to assume fishermen were simply losing and leaving the gear behind, but why wouldn’t they try to retrieve their gear? How often were they actually losing it? Did it even matter to them if their gear was lost?
In search of answers, my research took me to fish houses and trap yards of Miami and the Keys, where I was clearly an outsider, prodding and poking into the commercial fishing community.
Fishermen are among the hardest working people I have ever had the chance to meet. Their life is dependent on a dynamic environment, racing against time, against weather, against uncontrollable forces. It’s a challenge to survive against politics, agendas, and outside perceptions.
My bruises and callouses could not compare to theirs, my perspective and experiences were incomparable. I had thirty seconds to gain their trust and interest for another thirty seconds. Time is money and I was wasting it. Being able to explain my research to those fishermen while simultaneously building trust to get the information I needed proved a delicate dance. Through trial and error I learned that distrust of science could derail even the most well-intentioned efforts.
Effectively communicating science would make or break my research.
I was constantly aware of every aspect of my communication style, from vocabulary to presence. It was also the height of their fishing season, and my discussions needed to be succinct, clear, and an effective use of everyone’s valuable time.
While it was ultimately a success story, it was not an easily won victory. The experience was my wake-up call to the necessity of strong science communication skills. I had spent years teaching in formal and informal settings, which provided great training grounds for communicating science. However, those audiences were never as intricately wound in my own research as the fishermen would be.
Our findings can go a long way in shaping policy and perceptions. From marine debris to climate change, coastal erosion, and beyond, many communities and individuals can be directly impacted by the results of scientific research. While the fishermen shared their insight and perspectives with me, they were also a community which could be significantly impacted by changes in policy or action directed at mitigating marine debris on the reef. Their support gave my research legitimacy in a community often skeptical of scientific involvement.
So while we talk about the importance of science communication, practicing your elevator pitch and distilling your message, remember that it’s not just about teaching and sharing your research. It’s about engaging new audiences, building trust, and developing a dialogue between these groups. It should not be seen as an outward process of simply educating others and then retreating back to our work. Developing a dialogue among key networks and communities can provide you with support and information that can enhance the future of your research.
Don’t just think of science communication skills as benefiting the audience or public. Think about how building those skills can benefit you and your research. Science communication is a two-way street, and you might be amazed what you can learn from your audience.
How do you engage stakeholders and communities in your research? Share your thoughts and approaches with us below.
This week’s post is from Ocean 180 Steering Committee member Mallory Watson.