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Brenda Ekwurzel, Ph.D.

Brenda Ekwurzel, Ph.D.

Posted: November 15, 2010 02:07 PM

The Los Angeles Times created a minor firestorm in the science blogosphere this week when it reported that 700 members of the American Geophysical Union plan to aggressively take on climate skeptics, including members of Congress.

The AGU -- the world's largest body of Earth scientists -- rushed to issue a clarification the next day to explain it was simply relaunching a question and answer service that connects reporters with scientists.

But the L.A. Times article had already taken on a life of its own. Nearly 10,000 people shared it on Facebook and nearly 1,000 sent links on Twitter. An abridged version posted on The Huffington Post generated more than 5,000 comments.

The gist of this overwhelming response was: "Finally, the scientists are speaking out!" But everyone was reacting to news of an "aggressive push" that wasn't.

The truth is, most scientific societies are reluctant to go beyond issuing formal statements about science-related issues, even in the face of withering attacks on the scientific fields they represent. But there are plenty of scientists who do want to defend their findings and their profession, especially when they come under attack by polluter-funded politicians and partisan talking heads on radio and television.

Recent efforts by the AGU and other scientific societies to help scientists engage with the media and the public are welcome. But scientists have to do more -- a lot more.

My organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), has been engaged in the sometimes bruising intersection of science, the media and policymaking for decades. And we've stepped up our work on climate science communication this year, largely in response to a significant uptick in attacks on the field. While the evidence for climate change has steadily mounted over the last few years, the push back by many oil and coal interests and the think tanks and politicians they bankroll has become ever more shrill, polluting the debate with misinformation and outright lies. The news media, unfortunately, has sometimes been an enabler, providing a forum for polluting industries' multimillion-dollar disinformation campaign, which mirrors the tobacco industry's successful campaign to sow public confusion about the link between smoking and cancer.

Over the last several years, for example, UCS has defended scientist Ben Santer from baseless claims by the Wall Street Journal editorial page as well as hundreds of federal scientists whose work was suppressed and manipulated by the George W. Bush administration. We pushed back on groundless attacks on scientists after unidentified hackers stole emails from a British university last fall. And we rushed to shine the spotlight on misinformation when Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli launched an unwarranted investigation into Michael Mann's work at the University of Virginia.

Today we are expanding our work connecting scientists with journalists and policymakers. We're helping scientists speak out on radio shows and op-ed pages, and we host regular press conferences to promote new research. Our Science Network works with thousands of scientists across the country to promote science on a range of issues, including climate change. And our "Got Science?" campaign is aimed at holding the pundits, news organizations and think tanks that spread misinformation about climate science accountable.

We're also trying new ways to communicate science. Our "Curious for Life" ad campaign captured scientists as the curious kids they were -- chasing bugs on a baseball field, stomping around in the mud, or gazing up at the stars. It's not how scientists typically talk about their work, but it struck a chord with the general public.

UCS believes that it is critical for the future that the public better understand science, and for that to happen, more scientists are going to have to step out of their labs, away from the field, and pause from their calculations to engage with their communities. A deeper public understanding of science would make our country a better place, make our democracy stronger, and ensure that our governmental policies are more strongly grounded in reality.