A Vote for Science…or not.

And they’re off!

That’s right ladies and gentlemen; it is once again election season.

Now, I can’t lie, elections are kind of my guilty pleasure. There are debates, lies, scandals and memes. LOTS of memes. The Internet simply love an election! For example, during his presidential campaign announcement, Ted Cruz might have said the word imagine one too many times.

via Business Insider

via Business Insider

via Business Insider

via Business Insider

This year’s election is sure to be a crowd pleasure for a variety of reasons. First, there’s no incumbent, second, we had a pretty impressive shift in party majority and minority in Congress in the last round of elections, and third, both parties have their fair share negativity to contend with.

Last but not least, though, science will play a lead role in the campaigns.

A recent Quartz piece addressed this exact issue. “In a January poll, US voters told the Pew Research Center that the environment, as an issue, was number 13 on their priority list. Terrorism, the economy, jobs, education, and social security top the list.”

For Appalachia, though, separating economy and environment isn’t as easy, and treating the two issues separately has proven to be tough for the area.

More than 10,000 miners have lost jobs over the past two-and-a-half years in southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and although there are a handful of reasons for the coal industry decline in the area, many blame government oversight and regulation from agencies like the EPA.

We already know that Appalachia doesn’t always openly accept climate change, so what role will it play in the election?

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 9.39.11 AM Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 9.37.57 AM

It’s hard to say for sure just how important science will be in the main campaign messages, and all the current hopeful candidates (and those we expect to run) have made it clear what their positions are on the issue.

This election, probably more than any other, requires Appalachians to think about the environment and the economy as a pair and as separate issues. I look forward to seeing how the area copes with climate change policy, whatever that might be.


Tweeting in the name of Science

Yesterday, I posted piece about the trials and tribulations of using Twitter for science communication and a few tips and tricks for how to best utilize the platform.  Today, I want to show you a few examples of some great use of Twitter and talk about a few of my favorite accounts to follow.

There are plenty of lists out there to help you find you narrow down your science search, like Science Magazine’s Top 50 Science Stars, Mashable’s 25 Science Accounts to Make You Smarter and BuzzFeed’s 25 Must-Follow Twitter Accounts for Science Nerds.  Most of my favorite accounts are mentioned in these, but there are a few more up and coming accounts that I really enjoy.

One of my best science communicators active on Twitter right now David Shiffman, a PhD student at the University of Miami researching shark biology and conservation, as well as how information related to ocean science and conservation spreads through social media.  He’s a Twitter star among not just shark fanatics, but social media fans as well.  He’s got tons of academic publications in both areas.

What David does best, is use Twitter to engage with people.  He often holds Q&As, debunks marine life in the news and comments on current events.

Remember leftshark?  If you aren’t familiar with it, leftshark (probably better known as (#leftshark) took the world by storm (Sharknado?) during Katy Perry’s 2015 Super Bowl half time performance when his choreography seemed a bit off from his counterpart, rightshark.

David was like most of us, live tweeting the Super Bowl when the shark appeared, and then internet went wild. David, who’s Twitter handle is seriously @WhySharksMatter, quickly took to using #leftshark and joking with other followers. He didn’t force is science on people, but instead let them ask him questions about sharks.  The event peaked their interest and he was there to share in the fun.

Other Twitter users a great at doing this too.  You’ve probably heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson.  He’s widely regarded as the most popular science communicator alive.  Sure he’s got his talk show, a book, his lecture tour AND a primetime TV series, but he’s also got one of the most followed Twitter accounts ever.

Neil is no stranger to playing off of current events.  In fact, that’s the majority of his account.  Perhaps one of the best mashups of pop culture and science came during the 2014 World Series when Neil decided to tweet his knowledge of the sport.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 2.33.06 PM Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 2.32.51 PM

Check out the number of retweets and favorites!  It’s pretty impressive to see the type of engagement and Astrophysicist can produce during a baseball game.

I encourage you to check out David, Neil and the countless number of other science social media accounts out there and find what sparks your curiosity?  What makes you want to click and engage, and how can we do more of that?

The Trouble with Twitter

When you think science communication you probably picture a lecture hall full of wide-eyed individuals listening quietly to a dense lecture full of power points. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. I’ve sat through my fair share of lectures and learned a lot from them, but communicating science has come a long way.

Arguably, today’s most important tool for sharing science is Twitter. Twitter currently has 284 million active users.   Compare this to Popular Science’s 10,000 iPad subscriptions and you can see the vast opportunity for outreach.

The great thing about Twitter is that it requires information to be boiled down to 140 characters. If you’re active on Twitter, I’m sure you’ve spent more time whittling away at a witty tweet than you’d care to admit. You learn very quickly what the most important part of your tweet is.

Science raises new challenges, though. For instance, my time with the communications department at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center engraved the use of acronyms into my vocabulary. There were acronyms for missions, tools, buildings, and even other acronyms. It was even more fun when different missions and organizations used the same acronym to mean different things, or when acronyms didn’t actually line up with the true names of things.

Because of all of this, acronyms were both a curse and a blessing. Sure, they were short, and great if you were referring to a mission. It was so much easer to type RRM than Robotic Refueling Mission, but if you were weren’t careful, tweets suddenly spiraled in “SSCO’s RRM gets new VIPIR tool for use on ISS.” I can almost promise you that you’ll scroll right past that tweet.

So how do we convey scientific information via Twitter? I argue that we don’t. Twitter isn’t a teaching tool. It’s a curiousity sparker. Instead of trying to spend 140 characters telling you about robots refueling satellites in space, why don’t I show you a cool picture and provide you a link?

07.12.2011 - On July 12, 2011, spacewalking astronauts Mike Fossum and Ron Garan successfully transferred the Robotic Refueling Mission module from the Atlantis shuttle cargo bay to an temporary platform on the International Space Station's Dextre robot. via NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office

07.12.2011 – On July 12, 2011, spacewalking astronauts Mike Fossum and Ron Garan successfully transferred the Robotic Refueling Mission module from the Atlantis shuttle cargo bay to an temporary platform on the International Space Station’s Dextre robot. Photo via NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office.

Research shows that photos are fan favorites on Twitter, and playing on current events attracts attention. Science communicators will benefit most from engaging people, not lecturing them. Utilizing platforms in an efficient and appropriate way is the best (arguably only) way to make sure we’re getting the most out of efforts.

Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite science Twitter users and previewing some great uses of the site. What are some of your favorite accounts to follow, and what kind of material makes you stop scrolling, or better yet, click for more?

Getting Social about Space

I want to take a moment to talk about something that’s not so much Appalachia, but still a great example of the future of science communication.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to spend the day at one of my favorite places in the world, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA holds a special place in my heart, but especially Goddard. Two internships within its gates sparked an undying passion for all things science, technology and engineering for me. The whole place is kind of like a sci-fi infused college campus. There are clubs and events and classes, but instead of football stadium, you get a Space Environment Simulator that goes through 10,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen A DAY. I think that’s a pretty great trade off.

This thermal vacuum chamber exposes spacecraft components and other payloads to the environmental conditions they will experience once in space. The cylindrical chamber is 40 feet tall and 27 feet wide. -via NASA Goddard

This thermal vacuum chamber exposes spacecraft components and other payloads to the environmental conditions they will experience once in space. The cylindrical chamber is 40 feet tall and 27 feet wide. -via NASA Goddard

Enough about how amazing Goddard is, though. What’s really incredible about NASA is their style of public outreach and science communication. Sure, NASA does the usual press release and television live shot and web and social media update, but they also do something a little unexpected. In 2009, NASA hosted it’s first Tweetup (a group of Twitter users coming together to meet in person and tweet about the same general topic) at NASA’s Jet Propolsion Laboratory to tour the facility and learn about the latest missions.

By 2001, NASA had renamed the event to NASASocial and was inviting social media users representing almost all platforms. To date, NASA has hosted over 50 Socials in 15 unique locations. Attendees have had the opportunity to witness shuttle launches, spacecraft launches to the moon, Jupiter and Mars, fly an F/A-18 flight simulator and rub elbows with astronauts.

My personal NASASocial experiences have included a tours of Goddard and Wallops Island (here’s my Storify from the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, televised launches of missions with experts close by and one live launch of the Orbital Antares Rocket.

Yesterday’s event was focused on the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) Mission, a set of four identical spacecraft dedicated to studying magnetic reconnection near the sun.

Now, I won’t go into what magnetic reconnection is. That’s not what this blog is for. What IS important, though, is that nearly 40 public citizens spent their day dedicating their social media accounts to explaining this mission to their followers. The main event was held at NASA Kennedy Space Center for the actual launch, while Goddard held their own smaller media day.

This is a brilliant idea! We only share things we like and understand, right? That’s why it’s our account! So what better way to make a message public friendly than to let the public spread it? The best part of socials is that the people come from all different backgrounds. Some, like me, are dedicated communication professionals, while some have a rich science background. Others are schoolteachers, business professionals, stay-at-home parents and even video game actors (yea, I’m not kidding).

The point I want to drive home is that scientists don’t always need to speak to the masses. There are people willing to come to science and more than willing to sacrifice their battery life to share it, and with difficult concepts like magnetic reconnection, what better way to fine tune your message than to see what people are actually grasping?!

I know I’m super biased towards NASA, and I know there are valid complaints that come along with event, but when I look at the posts and following engagement that come out of these meetings, I can’t help but feel excited and hopeful that this is the future of science communication and outreach.

I encourage you to follow @NASASocial on Twitter and sign up for all the events!  You can also follow socials as they happen with the hashtag #NASASocial.

Defending Science Part 2

Yesterday’s post talked a little about why science-based campaigns are so rare when it comes to politics.

Some of the reasons we already touched upon have to do with the complexity of messaging and lack of expertise vs. need to argue from many politicians. Another problem is much more psychological, though. We habitually engage in cherry-picking evidence. All of us do it. Just think about the last night you got in an argument with a friend or loved one. You deliberately brought up things while carefully ignoring others.

The vaccine debate is a great example of this. While only one (falsified!) study was published claiming a link between autism and vaccinations, hundreds more produced data that showed there was no link. Just one ounce of evidence is all many people needed, though, to decide that vaccines weren’t for their child.

Another major problem when it comes to putting science back in politics is the allegiance to political parties. No party seems to want to fully claim science. For many, some science views go against religion. Others see science as a waste of government funds that produces little tangible gains in their eyes.

Claiming allegiance to a party is a necessary evil it seems in campaigns today, and unfortunately, party funding seems to stem heavily from those uninterested in pushing a science-backed agenda.

What all of this comes down to, is that science must be at the core of our national endeavors, and more importantly, we have to equip ourselves to be able to examine the evidence, evaluate it, then advocate and persuade. Our nation’s future depends on the quality of our thinking, and our leaders.

Defending Science pt 1

We’re quickly approaching full-blown presidential campaign season, and both parties are busy carefully crafting their messages.  We’re pretty accustomed to the key components of political messages, but we’re missing a crucial piece, science. Past campaigns have shown that ,traditionally, when a complex issue is involved, leaders simply do not explain. They find a mantra (“Stop Obama’s War on Coal!”)  and repeat it endlessly, “staying on message”, without explanation or qualification. We’re rarely treated to the “because.”

It seems obvious that evidence-based policies and actions should be central to campaign messages, but it’s rare that we move beyond slogans. But why?

There are a ton of reasons as to why science takes a backseat in our Appalachian politics. First, complex problems demand complex solutions. We need to revive the process of dialogue: explain, explain, explain, rejecting mere sloganeering and populism. We need evidence-based policies, but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to emotion and fear.

So we need to take action against global warming? Why? Not just because it’s “scary” and “dangerous.” It’s more than that. It’s huge snow and ice storms on top of widespread flooding. Violent weather is just one of the many “whys” for global warming discussion and action.

Politics avoid deep science for more than just ease of messaging, though. Politicians, who’s backgrounds are generally in law and business, make a living off of debating and arguing, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that they avoid scientific topics. What is concerning though, is when the political process takes on a science topic that threatens another area of their expertise (or funding).

Brian Schmidt, a Nobel Laureate in astrophysics, wrote of his experience in this regard:

As a Nobel Prize winner, I travel the world meeting all kinds of people.

Most of the policy, business and political leaders I meet immediately apologize for their lack of knowledge of science.

Except when it comes to climate science. Whenever this subject comes up, it never ceases to amaze me how each person I meet suddenly becomes an expert.

Facts are then bandied to fit an argument for or against climate change, and on all sides, misconceptions abound.

The confusion is not surprising – climate science is a very broad and complicated subject with experts working on different aspects of it worldwide.

No single person knows everything about climate change. And for the average punter, it’s hard to keep up with all the latest research and what it means.

More surprising is the supreme confidence that non-experts (scientists and non-scientists alike) have in their own understanding of the subject.

While recent research as shown that the public generally does trust scientists, why must politicians try so hard to eliminate it from their messages? More on this topic in tomorrow’s post.