Are you ready to deal with enragement as well as engagement?

A quick follow-on from Friday’s post on climate science and the need to engage the public.   Science’s vision of ‘the public’ is typically a bunch of  respectful yet unfortunately undereducated folk.  In reality, there are many publics,  including the respectful and the occasionally hostile.

Yesterday’s Sunday Times carried an interview with Professor Phil Jones, the head of  UEA’s climate science unit, and as such at the centre of the furore over leaked emails from the unit that appear to suggest scientists suppressing Freedom of Information requests.

In the interview, Phil Jones talks about receiving death threats and even having briefly contemplated suicide.  He also talks about the level of requests for information and how he and his colleagues had to come to see them as mischievous attempts to derail the work of his unit.

Jones, 57, said he was unprepared for the scandal: “I am just a scientist. I have no training in PR or dealing with crises.”

Engaging with the public is one skill that many scientists seek to develop, whether they work in obscure fields or TV-friendly areas; however, in many of the sensitive subjects that have blown up in recent years, there has been a passionate base of opposed and activist people.    Quite honestly, if someone is constantly dealing with passionate opposition, it’s not a case of whether a PR crisis will occur, but when and where.

Three points:

1) Engaging with activism is quite different from everyday science communication

It takes a huge amount of energy, as Phil Jones’ interview makes clear.  It requires enormous sensitivity, for people do not adopt passionate viewpoints lightly.  However, the content of activist debate can also distract scientists from addressing more general issues and concerns that passing members of the public might have.   Sustained mutual hostility can also lead to shut-down, as one group feels persecuted by the other and seeks to withdraw from the debate.

2) One-off crisis management is not the answer, especially where scientists are working in networked groups.

I do believe that research funders should be doing all they can to support scientists working in contested areas; and I strongly suspect that scientists are likely to be better prepared to deal with real crises if they are experienced in communicating their science more generally.

The online community specialists Freshnetworks published a nice piece today from an amateur blogger who took up sports blogging and in so doing, encountered ‘engaged’ fans and ‘enraged’ ones.  Dealing politely with the enraged group was a learning curve in itself.

3) Sadly, ‘I’m just a scientist’ probably doesn’t cut it any more.

Ten years ago, I remember talking to confused molecular biologists who held the same views. Some of them felt that the fancy arguments really ought to be held by other people (government, policy experts, PR bods), not by ordinary working scientists like them.  The  sad truth is that few of these others can really advocate effectively.   The scientists themselves need to keep talking, however difficult that conversation might be.

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