Friday, August 13, 2010

Models for interfacing ecology and society

First off, an apology for the long, long silence on this blog. In some respects I've had a very restful summer reading, writing, and sitting on white sandy beaches. But intellectually, this summer has challenged me like no other period in my life. I'm struggling with a fundamental conflict between the base assumptions underlying my recent research, and a new-found awareness of research on policy formation and public engagement with science. I haven't resolved those conflicts yet, but I can see the glimmer of hope on the horizon.

But back to the purpose of the blog - reviewing recent articles and commenting on their relevance for AM. Peter Groffman and colleagues have a great review of research relevant to the interface between science and society in the latest Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The most useful point they make, IMHO, is to distinguish between the "deficit model" of science communication, and a broader concept of "public engagement". In the deficit model, the primary reason for failure to act on a developing environmental issue is assumed to be a lack of knowledge on the part of members of the public. Fill that gap, and all will be wonderful. This model ignores that much more than knowledge goes into a person's decision to act or not act on an issue - thorny things like beliefs, values, and interests. And worse, those decidedly non-ecological aspects affect how and what people choose to learn, further compromising the simple model of teaching to save the world.

In the public engagement model, say Groffman and colleagues, scientists engage in 2 way dialogue with the public that connects the problem to public values in an open and transparent manner. Hmmm, sounds difficult. And time consuming. But I believe they are right - fits in well with the work by Elinor Ostrom on governing the commons.

The article ends with a series of ideas for modes of engaging the public. I was very pleased to see that starting a blog was the number one suggestion! They had a very interesting figure from the Pew Research Center on People in the Press indicating that in 2008 the Internet exceeded Newspaper as the source of national and international news for the first time. Digging through that report, it appears that the use of the internet is even higher among younger people - so get out there and blog everyone!

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