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Communicating Science-- A Conversation with Karen DeBaker
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Jerry: Im Jerry McMahon and Im the project chief of a U.S. Geological Survey, NAWQA, National Water-Quality Assessment Program Study of the effects of urban development on stream ecosystems. And why were here today having the conversation is that we are at the tail end of the project and weve produced a lot of scientific journal articles, USGS reports, pretty much exclusively aimed at a scientific audience. And one of the things that we want to do as we wrap up the project is figure out how we can communicate, package some of this good science information in a format that would be of interest to a non-science audience.

So the dilemma that were facing is that its not something that we as USGS scientists do often and that we know how to do very well, that is-- take this great science information and translate it into a format that not only people can trust as being believable and credible from a science standpoint, but that they can actually make use of it, understand it and even make a connection between this information and their interest, sort of what they wake up and worry about or are interested in each day.

So again, what Im hoping we can do is have a conversation to talk a little bit from your perspective about how can we do this stuff, what sort of things should we keep in mind. Can you tell me, Karen, can you tell me a little bit about what you do here in Hillsboro, Oregon?

Karen: Well, my title officially, Im Karen Debaker and my title officially is communication supervisor. And I work for Clean Water Services, which is a water resources agency that serves the west metro region of Portland, Oregon. About 527,000 folks. We provide wastewater and storm water services, river flow management, flood protection, fish habitat protection and such.

So our goal is basically to promote a healthy watershed lifestyle. And my job is mainly concerned with communicating that to the public and making sure that what were saying fits into their daily lives, just like you were talking about. We need to let them know why its important and how they can be ambassadors of the clean water message.

Jerry: Well, can you tell me a little bit about sort of how the process plays out? At some point obviously theres scientific or engineering information about the watershed or about the services you all are providing. Can you step me through the process of how you start with the science and end up with some information that people care about and are willing to use to put into practice in terms of how they lead their lives every day?

Karen: Sure. The biggest thing that I think if you stepped back and start to think about first of all who you are. I mean you are a public official, youre working for a public agency and you have a responsibility to be open and honest with folks. That being said, you also are working with the negative connotation that government or a public agency has. Government is sometimes viewed as being misleading; using lots of jargon, being covert, spending money unwisely, when we know personally that thats not true. However, those are the misconceptions that are out there.

So while youre working to be open and honest you have to remember that this is what folks are really thinking and so you have to strive to be as open and honest as possible. We like to basically say we follow basically the mantra of whats in it for me. WIFM we call it. And that basically youre putting yourself in the position of a resident, for example, Mary who lives down the street. Why should she care about clean water? Why should she really care about what youre talking about? You need to put yourself in her shoes and think about how your message and your teachings and your scientific data can fit and help her in her daily life.

Another thing you need to do, like I said, is know your audience. You have to, again, put yourself in their shoes. Youre going to use different language whether youre speaking to peers, whether youre speaking to public officials, or whether youre speaking to the public, Mary who lives down the street. So there are different languages and different levels of information that youre going to use based on their backgrounds.

Try to know the values of your audience. Now I know you might say, you know, I cant go and visit with each one individually.

Jerry: Right.

Karen: But you do have the opportunity, I mean there are surveys that are out there that test what people believe and their values and whatnot. You just have to be able to figure out where theyre coming from so you can relate. A lot of our public education and outreach programs deal with changing behavior. Youre asking people to change their way of life, to be more supportive of watershed health. So thats where values come into play.

The other thing is you need to know their motivations. Why do they do what they do? Whats going to be an incentive that you can provide to help them do, you know, what you want them to do? Do you need to give them coupons to buy the native plant? Do you need to give them coupons to buy the organic fertilizer? You also need to figure out what the barriers are to get them to change.

So we talked about purchasing fertilizer. If a barrier is cost I cant ask them to drive 30 miles away to the organic nursery to buy this really expensive fertilizer. I have to work within their values, their beliefs, their motivations and their daily life, you know. You have to know their background and know what those barriers are to help them make that behavior change. So thats real important.

Jerry: It sounds intimidating and impossible from the perspective of a scientist. And I understand what youre saying, makes a lot of sense to me as a I mean Im a citizen as well and sometimes I know that people are trying to get me to do things that are good for something. But Im sitting in my office or working out in the field developing scientifically sound information that can be published and presented to a group of my peers and that involves a particular set of skills. None of those skills overlap with what youre talking about in terms of getting information about these people and their interests and what they care about.

So am I supposed to do that? Are there I mean how do you guys work it in terms of you have a group of scientists and engineers who are developing sound information, some of whom work for you and maybe you hire others as consultants, but how do you who does that translation and who collects that information about what people care about so you can address the so what, who cares question?

Karen: We take we put a lot of value into our community interactions. When we go to public meetings or we go to the Childrens Clean Water Festival we put

Jerry: When you say we, so this isnt necessarily the scientists, this is your office or you perhaps.

Karen: Right. But however, it can be. We actually, and this is a good way to think about it as well, not everyone in your organization is comfortable speaking with the public and I think thats what you were eluding to a little bit. We understand that. And working for Clean Water Services we try to find those people who like find those people who are ambassadors, so to speak, who can spread our message.

For example, we have a lot of school programs and I would love it if every one of our waste-water treatment plant operators would go and speak to classrooms because theyre the folks that are doing it, theyre the scientists. But a lot of them are uncomfortable speaking in front of the public. So we try to find that one person maybe who is a little league coach, maybe who is very interested in speaking with the public who works well with kids. We talk about knowing your audience, but at the same time you have to know your employees and find those people who arent the public affairs folks, who are the natural communicators who can spread that, like I said, that clean water message.

Its great if they can go out there in their uniform as well. I mean that, the science, the lab coat, all of that. And weve been very successful doing that, but thats because weve done our research with our employees and weve trained them. I mean one of the things that we say is prepare and practice. I mean that goes for public affairs folks, but, you know, the same goes for anyone else. Is there someone at home that, do you have a spouse, do you have a 17-year old son that you can kind of talk with and make sure that they understand where youre coming from? If you can do that and if that other person who might be a family member can understand what youre saying then youre ready to speak to the public.

So its important to know your employees and find those people who are comfortable. Dont shove someone out there in the world who isnt comfortable even though thats the smartest person in your organization.

Jerry: So can you say a little bit about how you train these scientists or engineers to get into this role that may not be within their comfort zone right away.

Karen: The biggest thing that we do is that we give them the tools and tips that we live by. And we talked before about knowing your audience, we tell them you need to choose your words carefully. So we give them these tips. One of them is to try not to use words that are more than three syllables. Try not to use sentences that are more than ten words long. Stay away from jargon, stay away from acronyms, use conversation style. Its okay to be funny, its okay to have an active voice. Dont use the passive voice. Try to be more on level with the public that youre speaking with.

The biggest thing, and this will relate to a lot of the stuff that USGS is doing as well as in our clean water services, is we deal in a lot of numbers. Hundredth decimal point is very important. If something is 98.34 percent dont tell someone that. Say its more than 95 percent or its almost 100 percent. Try to put everything in simple terms. Keeping it simple is very important, trying to relate to the public is very important.

So I think its mainly calming the fears of folks saying, you know, we know youre not a public speaker but knowing ahead of time what they want to talk about and then working with them to put it in simple terms is a great way to do it. Because I think you feel you need to talk at a higher level and you dont, but in the same token Ill say dont assume people dont want to know more, dont assume theyre not as smart as you. So speak in those smaller sentences and the shorter words, put all that more scientific information out there though so they can get to it if they want to. Save that for your website, save that for your white paper that you can hand out later.

Jerry: One of the challenges I think for scientists is that theres a feeling that in order to be accurate and to represent this information that youve worked so hard to develop and through analysis to draw some interesting conclusions is that to be accurate means that you do have to talk about the thousandth decimal place. And it almost seems like theres a different mindset that you need to adopt in talking to the public where you are being accurate, its okay, youre kind of checking off the responsibility box of being scientifically accurate, but maybe expressing it in terms that would be less precise than you would use to speak to your science colleagues. And thats a challenge.

Karen: It is. And thats why we were saying you need to plan and prepare. You know, we always say, too, if a media call comes in and they happen to call you instead of somebody in your public affairs or communications office we try to train our folks to say, you know what, when do you need this information, can I call you back in five minutes. We encourage them then to call someone in public affairs and we say okay lets plan out what youre going to say, you know. Is there a way that you can give that information in a shorter version and then lead them to somewhere else where they can get more information?

Its just a matter of being confident in what youre saying, but at the same time you have to remember who youre speaking to. I mean its not youre not speaking to your colleagues most of the time youre speaking to that 17-year old or youre speaking to Mary who lives down the street. Or youre passing by and usually what we say, too, is practice your elevator speech. The elevators ready to take off, what can you say in five seconds that will get your information across? So you have to keep that in mind and just be confident.

Jerry: Well, it seems like it takes training. Its not something that necessarily anyone, whether theyre a scientist or anyone else, that they can do automatically, sort of communicate a chunk of maybe complex information in five or ten seconds before the elevator door closes and the elevator starts going up. Do you all do training with people as a matter of course with scientists who might be in this position, I mean in contact with the public?

Karen: We do. We try to do some media training and thats something where well work with other organizations kind of to save on cost and bring a media trainer in. And so they can practice being on camera and whatnot. But, you know, times are tough and we want to save money as much as possible, try to get the most bang for our buck, so to speak, so just a one on one conversation like Im having with you where we give them these tips, you know. We say keep it simple, know your audience, be open and honest. And if you keep those skills or those tips in mind thatll help calm your fears.

And we always tell folks, too, you know, like I said, practice in the mirror. Its not as much practice as you would think. I think basically its mainly trying to how do you build your credibility at the same point of relaying really important information? And you just have to build that confidence in folks. And I think its kind of the role of public affairs folks, theyre natural communicators, to build those scientists up. Because we like to say were not the smart ones, you are. And folks would rather hear from you than from me. So being confident in what youre saying is very important. So theres a lot of mental confidence that goes on with all of that, too, rather than just trying to relay the scientific information.

But one of the things I was going to say, too, is that we you want to relate to your audience as much as possible and if you feel like you fit in that will help you provide that will help you give the appropriate clean water instruction that you want to give. For example, if you are asked to go to a meeting to speak, for example, we dont want you to show up in your science coat or your three piece suit at seven p.m. when theres a neighborhood meeting at the local church. No, you need to fit in because you want to build credibility and you want to be seen as one of the guys or one of the women, you know, who are there so you can be fit in and basically speak appropriately.

So basically, the important thing we always like to say is we are in the business of protecting public health and we try to we show folks that we are there for you. And by protecting our water resources we are giving you a livable community, we are protecting your familys interests.

Jerry: It strikes me that were in a period where theres almost a sense of urgency about communicating science information to people, at least from the perspective of scientists. Therere things going on that, at least in the long term, could affect my interests and my kids interests and my grandchildrens interests potentially and yet we also see by just sort of the political environment that we live in and the skepticism about expert knowledge that its become a lot harder to have people connect with science information that an agency like USGS could provide and value that as something useful for them.

And I dont know that the traditional forms of communication that we use in USGS, particularly journal, scientific journal articles, for instance, are really the way to go to make that connection with people. So how what should we be thinking about in this time where there is an urgent need for the information thats complicated by the fact that a lot of times people have no idea about why they should care about the information?

Karen: Well, its important to know that I wouldnt give up on those journals. There are folks who do like those white papers, as we call them. However, you know, people are getting their information from a minimum of seven different news sources a day so you need to be efficient, you just need to be more efficient, you need to package it a little bit more succinctly. For example, unfortunately we are now Twitter has taken over the world. I mean we are in an industry where, I should say an age where it is a 140 characters or less.

And working with the minimum of seven news agencies or news resources you have to be quick with that information. But at the same time make sure you are able to get all that information across in a short manner. I mean we talked about the shorter words and the shorter sentences. However, at the same point, not everything is a Twitter feed. I wouldnt base all of my communication resources on using Twitter. I would use a variety just because there are a variety of audiences out there.

For example, the journals are still just as important as a Twitter feed. Your website is just as important as using Facebook. Keep a variety in there. Twitter and Facebook, as far as social media goes, does relate more to the younger audience and this is where, especially at Clean Water Services and the Water Environment Federation, we are trying to bring in those younger scientists. So you need to be able to speak to their interests.

I mean we want to make water interesting, we want to make water resources fun and our industry knowledge is going out the door with our retirees. So in trying to relate and trying to get those younger audiences in you need to be able to use the resources that they use to get that information across.

Jerry: So with the younger folks do you guys use Twitter and Facebook?

Karen: Yes, we do. We use Twitter

Jerry: And youre packaging the fruits of the science and the engineering knowledge in a way that so how do you fine tune that 140 word message or the Facebook posting that kind of takes the lets say youve done monitoring and youve developed a scientific story out of the monitoring data, how do you package that in 140 words or in a Facebook posting in a way that my son, whos a college student, is really going to care about? And maybe point, you know, share that with a friend of hers or his?

Karen: We use humor. For example, we have a tree for all program where try to plant so many trees in so many years in order to protect watershed health and the title of our 140 characters or our little news story will be Get Dirty for a Good Cause. So we try to be funny with it. So youre trying you are trying to create that angle and grasp their attention. Then we provide a link. If they want to learn more information theres always a link. You cant, for more information, you cant just say something without giving them the option to learn more. So thats very important.

And its kind of what I talked about earlier as far as kind of giving the synopsis and then making more of the in depth information available somewhere else. You dont have to say everything all right there, but you do have to think about- how are you going to grasp their attention? Its okay to use humor. I mean people people know scientists are smart, youve built that credibility, its okay to be fun, too.

Jerry: Yeah, a colleague that weve been talking with about this issue; generally scientists communicating with the public, actually has written a book called Dont Be Such a Scientist. And thats really thats a challenge for many of us I think that are scientists is not to fall back into our comfort zone, which is talking about the particulars, the nitty-gritty stuff, all the details, all of which we need we feel like we need to make this message credible to our peers, which we do, but the credibility standards for our science peers maybe are not the same as with the public.

But Im wondering if you can talk about the part of the demographic that isnt Im not on Twitter, I dont use Facebook particularly. I really like hard-copy written things. Thats still where my brain is wired from, you know, how old I am, how I was educated. How do you guys reach people like me who may not be scientists, who might be concerned about their environment but they dont want to read a scientific document?

Karen: The biggest thing that we try to do is in those written documents try to use lots of white space, photos, graphs, different way to relay that information that isnt only the written word. Things have to be appealing. And, you know, before I talked about a minimum of seven news sources a day, things have to be quick and they have to be able to be looked at, you know, in a short timely manner. So by using pictures to tell stories youre livening up, you know, that information a little bit so.

Jerry: So is the idea kind of a National Geographic type format with really striking photos that are related to the scientific finding accompanied by a nice catchy caption. Is that what youre talking about?

Karen: Mm-hmm. Exactly. And video. I mean were talking about video. I mean were here now making a video instead of producing a white paper. You know, I think folks like you, you know, you would like video, too. I mean its a different way of presenting things. I, and like I said before, I wouldnt completely get away from doing the long laborious white paper because some folks might want that. And, you know, people view scientists as credible. They do want that information.

There are folks that might, like I said, might even be smarter than you that want all of those numbers and stuff like that. But you just have to realize that you have a larger communication platform which youre working with right now and there are a lot more communication resources out there and you have to curtail your messages accordingly to each one. Its a lot more work and its unfortunate we live in a really busy society so that is why scientists like you need to work even more closely with those communicators and try to combine those messages. But again, people would rather hear from you than from a public affairs person.

Jerry: Well, its interesting, part of what Im gathering from what youre saying is that we as scientists at USGS potentially have a number of audiences, many of which weve never really spent that much time thinking about. And we know through peer review, journal articles and USGS scientific publications that we can reach an audience of our peers, people who are going to give us good feedback and challenge us to do better science through the scientific process and thats an arena where were comfortable.

But in the time where scientific information actually is important in terms of policy decisions related to clean energy or climate change or natural hazards, land use planning related to natural hazards, or watershed planning, there are a lot of other people out there who are potential consumers of scientific information from the U.S. Geological Survey who may not be able to access that information because of the way that we typically communicate.

So the challenge is to think about who this other audience is, what are they looking for in terms of both their own information needs, but also what makes information and actually this is a question for you, what makes information believable and credible, scientific information? I mean is all science created equal in the eyes of the public from your standpoint? Or what makes scientific information maybe stand out as being particularly credible to the public?

Karen: You have to build the credulity as an agency as a public official yourself. I mean theyre looking at you, you know. Theyre looking at USGS. Is that credible? Okay, its a government agency so they might be lying to us. They get paid a lot of money. I mean you have to realize that you do have credibility to a point just from your title and what youre trying to do again is youre trying to be as open and honest as possible. So I know a lot of scientists, I dont want to say hide behind all of the numbers, but at the same time you have a right and you have a responsibility to give all of those numbers, whether theyre good or bad.

I mean surveys have told us people want the truth no matter if its good or bad. So its okay to give that information. Its just important that you make sure you know your audience and youre speaking to them in the manner that they understand. Thats more important. The numbers follow. I mean you have that credibility. Youre USGS, you are the scientist. People do trust that, but they just want to make sure that, you know, they can receive that information very clearly. They dont want you to use a lot of jargon, they dont want you to speak too much about them. So if they feel that theyre your friend and they can understand you that helps build your credibility as well.

Jerry: I have another question and I think it gets to this credibility thing and that is that we can construct a great model that predicts an outcome that might be of interest to people, you know, water quality is going to be good, water quality is going to be bad in terms of some legal standard, or its going to be somewhere in between. So there are three different possible outcomes. Now I get a sense sometimes that decision makers might want us to just predict one of those outcomes and that thats going to be the outcome. But in reality, theres probably a chance of any three of those things happening. One might be more likely than another.

And so the challenge is, I think, for scientists in part to communicate in communicating with decision makers, for instance, a county commissioner, to explain the uncertainty associated with or the different likelihood associated with these three different outcomes. How what should we be thinking about when we think about that issue that the reality is is that there is probably a likelihood of any one of these three outcomes? This one might be a little bit more likely or less likely than another one. How do you communicate uncertainty to decision makers?

Karen: Well, to decision makers, and thats kind of what I was talking about before about knowing your audience. You know, youre going to use a different level of conversation depending on your audience, whether its peers or decision makers, public or the public themselves. And I do think knowing what the decision makers are looking for. You still dont want to hide anything. Try to always make things sound positive even though its bad. Meaning that if youve got information that, you know, water quality is declining you need to also say, but heres what we are doing to make it better.

Always try to look ahead, you know. I mean you want to give the facts and you want to provide all of the data and stuff like that, but I think decision makers just want all of the information. You know, like I said, because those decision makers then are going on and relaying that information to the public and to their peers. So theyre also interacting with the same people that youll eventually interact with as well. And its that whole idea of being open and honest. I dont think you have to put a spin on anything.

However, if you have a decision maker that has a specific reason or is looking for a specific answer you do need to speak to that interest. But is there a way that you can then put that full information somewhere else? Because like I said, those decision makers are speaking for the public as well and theyre serving the public as well. Its your responsibility to provide all of that information so.

And I always like to say, too, you know, you dont have to lie, but at the same time you need to be positive with what youre saying, you know. We spent our industries scolding people for what not to do, dont do this, dont put, you know, oil down the drain, wash where, be careful where you wash your car so the soap doesnt go down the drain. However, at the same point, you need to be able to say okay heres what you can do instead, you know, so-

And another big thing is even choosing your words carefully as far as saying water quality, you know, we say clean water. Water quality? What does that mean? We say clean water. So its important that you, even though youre speaking to decision makers and youre choosing your words appropriately, you just have to realize that there are other audiences out there that are listening.

Jerry: Well, I mean its interesting and this gets into the jargon difficulties, that were so used to speaking with our peers that we use jargon as sort of a shorthand and we all understand what it means, but you cant necessarily count on an entirely different audience which has a different frame of reference, different experiences, to even understand what a word like water quality might mean. Yeah, thats a good point. Its an interesting point.

Karen: And thats why I say practice and prepare. Speak to someone whos not within the industry, your spouse or your 17-year old son. Thats very important.

Jerry: Well, thanks very much.

End of Audio

Duration: 30 minutes

Karen Debaker.mp4
Jerry McMahon and Karen DeBaker
Communicating Science- A Conversation with Karen DeBaker

Speakers Names



Title: Communicating Science-- A Conversation with Karen DeBaker


Jerry McMahon (USGS) and Karen DeBaker, Communications Supervisor with Clean Water Services of Portland Oregon, discuss effective science communication.

Location: Portland, OR, USGS Oregon Water Science Center and Tyron Creek State Park, USA

Date Taken: 12/15/2010

Length: 30:00

Video Producer: Douglas Harned , U.S. Geological Survey

Note: This video has been released into the public domain by the U.S. Geological Survey for use in its entirety. Some videos may contain pieces of copyrighted material. If you wish to use a portion of the video for any purpose, other than for resharing/reposting the video in its entirety, please contact the Video Producer/Videographer listed with this video. Please refer to the USGS Copyright section for how to credit this video.

Additional Video Credits:

Jerry McMahon- Producer/Interviewer
Karen DeBaker- Clean Water Services
Douglas Harned- Filmmaker
Luke McMahon- Lighting, Camera
Alan Cressler- Camera


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