Mapping climate science needs and networks in the Pacific Northwest through evaluation of a climate science newsletter

“If scientists can’t communicate with the public, with policy makers, with one another, the future is going to be held back. We’re not going to have the future that we could have.” — Alan Alda

Knowing and deeply understanding your audience is one of the key elements of effective science communication. It is the primary way to ensure that your science is useful to others. And this principle applies to science products as well, such as scientific articles and products that collate science news. With this principle in mind, we set out to understand our audience and their needs at the former Northwest Climate Science Center so that we could tailor our climate science digest to the climate science needs of our constituents.

Diana Gergel
Word cloud of the most salient topics from each article in the November 2016 Northwest Climate Science Center digest. The size of each word represents the importance of that subtopic relative to the other subtopics shown in the figure.

The former Northwest Climate Science Center (NWCSC) was one of eight regional climate science centers established by the US Department of the Interior under the umbrella of the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Serving WA, OR, ID and western Montana, for the duration of this study it was a university consortium comprised of Oregon State University, the University of Idaho and the University of Washington (UW), managed with federal oversight from USGS. Since July of 2017, however, the NWCSC has been led by the UW Climate Impacts Group and is now known as the Northwest Climate Adaptation Center. Science communication was a key element of the NW CSC due to their duty to promote climate science information exchange between scientists and regional stakeholders, acting as a boundary organization between USGS, the university consortium, and regional resource managers and policymakers. It was with this goal in mind that the NW CSC climate science digest was started in 2014, with the idea that it would be the primary vehicle for synthesizing, translating and distributing climate science research, news and events in the Pacific Northwest.

In the fall of 2015, about a year after I had started my Ph.D. studies, I got an e-mail from the UW Program on Climate Change with a notice that the NW CSC was looking for a graduate student to help with improving their communications products. Science communication was an area I was interested in pursuing and one that I strongly feel is part of being an ethical scientist, so I reached out to the NW CSC and quickly became their first Graduate Communications Fellow. Although initially I was supposed to help produce a few of the science digests and do a brief analysis of how to improve the digest, my project – and role with the center – quickly morphed into something much bigger and more involved than either myself or the NW CSC staff had initially envisioned. Part of this was my own passion for sharing science, and part of this was due to the political and social times that we were in. This was before the 2016 election and the future state of climate science felt precarious. Even casual conversations – especially with so much support from the federal government for the work that we were doing – felt scary, and sharing what had quickly become politicized science seemed more important than it ever had before.

Over time, I shifted from an initial evaluation of the climate science digest to a more holistic approach to understanding the science needs of subscribers. When I was still helping to produce the digest, we distributed poll questions within the body of the digest to get a feel for the kinds of science articles and the type of content subscribers were looking for. However, we didn’t get the number of responses we’d hoped for, and the input we did get led us to realize that we needed more in-depth questions to better understand subscribers. As a result, we expanded our evaluation to include targeted interviews with regional stakeholders across different agencies and types of organizations who were actively using the digest. Interviewees included individuals from the Bureau of Reclamation, Tribal Climate Change Project at the University of Oregon, Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Since I used to be an environmental historian and also had training in anthropology and experience doing oral histories, I was familiar with interview methodology and was able to leverage my background in doing these interviews. These conversations were invaluable to understanding the ways in which subscribers interacted with the digest and the role of the digest in circulating climate science in the region. The final stage of our evaluation process used analytics from MailChimp to quantify the climate science content that was useful to subscribers, both in terms of article type as well as topic area. We were able to trace popularity of articles by the “number of clicks” and also to trace which articles were most useful to different constituencies of subscribers. Beyond this, for the most popular articles, we analyzed the abstracts of these articles and conducted a text analysis of them to understand which subtopics in climate science were most salient.

Diana Gergel
Article categories for the most popular articles for each digest for the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative (top) and the Northwest Climate Science Center (bottom).

Overall, we found a strong need for transferrable science, rather than hyperlocal case studies specific to the Pacific Northwest. We also found that the digest was serving an important purpose as a mode of scientific knowledge exchange between academic research and natural resource managers at the federal, state and local level, as well as for scientists working in the for-profit and non-profit sectors. We found that the digest was being actively used by scientists, natural resource managers, tribes and agencies at all levels of government both in the Pacific Northwest and Canada as well as in other parts of the US. We found that subscribers wanted input on how the digest was structured, and this motivated our conclusion that tailoring communications products that disseminate climate science would enable more informed decision-making around natural resources management at the federal, state and local levels. Unfortunately, the climate science digest ceased to exist after the NW CSC became the NCAC in 2017, and thus our evaluation process did not end up having the impact that we had hoped for. However, the project was still immensely worthwhile. I believe that there is a strong need to evaluate communications products so that we are able to disseminate more applicable and relevant climate science to natural resource managers. Communications products often serve as the only vehicle of translating climate science to those who are making decisions, and if these products don’t contain usable and useful science, their importance is invalidated. I hope that this study might provide a template for future evaluations of climate science products, so as part of this project I wrote up a manuscript of our research methodology. We also produced a unique dataset – comprised of both qualitative and quantitative evaluation data – that could be a reference point for future studies that combine multiple analytical frameworks for evaluating communications products.  (Links: manuscript and figures.)

Diana Gergel is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Computational Hydrology group in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Her dissertation research has focused on climate modeling in the Arctic using the Regional Arctic System Model, which she has used to better understand changes in permafrost and snow at high latitudes. In addition to her work with the NW CSC, she was also part of the inaugural Pacific Science Center Polar Science Cohort, where she has been developing a planetarium show on how we can use models to understand changes in permafrost in the Arctic. In Fall 2019, she will complete her Ph.D. and start working as a Climate Research Analyst at Rhodium Group. You can reach her at dgergel@gmail.com.