Sunday, April 11, 2010

Scientific Research: turning data into a compelling message

The latest issue of TIME magazine has an interesting article on plastics and the chemicals they can leach back into our food and the environment. It's an interesting read but what caught my eye was it's closing statement as it is applicable to nature and ocean conservation in general:

"' Science isn't just about data,' says the NIEHS's [National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences] [Linda] Birnbaum. 'It's about the interpretation of data.' That interpretation, ultimately, won't be up to scientists. It will be up to us. The lesson of Earth Day [when air pollution was a heightened and more visible issue], 40 years on, is that smart policy - fired by popular will - can make a difference that we can see."

In my documentary, Island of the Great White Shark, this sentiment was echoed by Ed Cassano, Deputy Director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans and founder of the marine research/education group, "Data for data itself is not very important. When data turns into information, it's very powerful. But if it only has a limited audience then it has a limited effect. And so, you have to get that information to the people that make decisions."

In the years that I have spent as a filmmaker, working with researchers, and promoting conservation issues, I have seen how this is true. There is important research data that appears
in scientific journals or other publications but, because of its complex nature and scientific jargon, does not go much further in reaching and motivating the public. Arcane, esoteric language is ignored, or worse, is misinterpreted.

Scientists may not make the ultimate interpretation, but they can do a lot more to insure that the public and the policy makers come to conclusions that are accurate and actionable.

This is where people like myself, involved in media communications, can play an important role and need to be included in the research process. There are a multitude of media channels by which research groups and scientists can take their results and translate them into issues, implications, and possible solutions - something that the public can get a handle on. And it should be a component of the research process and not left, after the fact, to university public relations departments or headline-seeking networks on a quest for ratings. Therein lies the potential for distortion of the facts.

Scientific research can provide answers to many of our pressing environmental challenges which means it has a greater responsibility to better control and deliver the message itself. When I discuss this with scientists and researchers, they seem to agree (I get a lot of enthusiastic head nods). But it's a big step for them to include media communications in their proposals or projects - it's one more item that requires funding in a strained economic environment. However, the residual benefits of making the extra effort can pay off: more exposure for a group's work, providing additional recognition and leverage when seeking future funding.

As someone who has been involved in a variety of corporate and broadcast media activities, from strategic planning to multi-channel development and execution, every time I look through the lens, I'm thinking beyond just capturing a pretty image. How will it be used? How will it motivate? What is the big picture that could be accomplished here? These are the thoughts that go through the minds of people who realize the power and reach of effective media communications - for good or for bad. And because the truth can be distorted, it behooves scientists and researchers to be more proactive and work with those who have a mutual interest in getting the message right.

I am always looking for opportunities to work with scientific research groups in documenting their work and insuring that their results are effectively communicated to the masses. This is a direction that really excites me and speaks to my passion for conservation.

The general public, educators, and policy makers are turning to science for answers and we must be sure we are all speaking the same language.

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