March 4, 2020

Third Pod Presents: Sci & Tell – Pulwarty & Hayes, Connecting Science & Society

Posted by Shane Hanlon

Roger Pulwarty & Michael Hayes at AGU’s annual meeting in 2018. Credit: AGU

Why do people feel they way they do about issues? Why do lawmakers and policy leaders seemingly act against their better interests? And how can information be developed in a way that leads not just to greater understanding, but to better decision making? Two veterans of the climate and risk management field, Dr. Roger Pulwarty and Dr. Michael Hayes, discuss how important it is to line up the sciences, policy, and society in the way that assures the consequences of the decisions are understood by all involved. Their work includes a collaboration on the bipartisan creation, National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS).

This episode was produced and mixed by Shane M Hanlon. Special thanks to Jordana Schmierer for production assistance.



Shane Hanlon:               Growing up, I wasn’t an especially inspired student. I went to public school in rural Pennsylvania from kindergarten through high school. I did pretty well but nothing really spoke to me. Until AP Biology in 10th grade. I remember sitting in class while my teacher, Mr. Albright, told us about the adventures of Charles Darwin on the H.M.S. Beagle. About the things he discovered and how that shaped his views on evolution. About the adversity he faced from the church and society at that time – that he essentially became a pariah for wanted to share science more broadly in a time where society (or a select few groups in power) wasn’t ready. Because of that class, I chose to go to college to get a degree in Ecology and Evolution, eventually made it to grad school, and found a passion for helping others share science more broadly. Mr. Alright has since passed away but I’ll always be thankful for the impact he had on my life.

Shane Hanlon:              Everyone has a story, even, or maybe especially, scientists. Science affects each and every one of us. Let’s talk about it. From the American Geophysical Union, I’m Shane Hanlon, and this is Sci & Tell.

Shane Hanlon:               So today I’m bringing y’all an episode on a subject that’s near and dear to my heart – science & society. It’s an admittedly jargon-y term that basically means connecting science with everything outside of academic or research circles; including science, or the recognition of the influence of science, in everyday life. I teach science communication to help others share their science in the larger society so I’m happy today to have an interview from our 2018 annual meeting from two scientists who have made it their mission to share science more broadly. Our interviewer was Greg Ruff.

Greg Ruff:                     And my two guests in this conversation are Michael Hayes from the University of

Nebraska at Lincoln, go Huskers, and Roger Pulwarty from NOAA.

Roger Pulwarty:            Go, fish!

Greg Ruff:                     Go, fish! You guys are going to talk about such a broad topic, the role of science

in society, if we can make it as broad as possible. But, what does that mean to you guys?

Roger Pulwarty:            So, in this context, when we think of the role of science in society, there’s the public service aspects of it. We have invested a lot of public funds in the development of scientific monitoring, in scientific knowledge. And, the realization, and Mike can back me up on this, for both of us was that for such a long time, we understood that the expectations of all the work that was being done by scientists was not being realized with benefit.

Took a long time or people didn’t actually incorporate it into their decision- making because there were no mechanisms to do that, no guidance on how to do that. So, the role, however, is also to create a small “d” democratic view of science, which allows all parts of society, both the technologically sophisticated and not, to be able to benefit from this public investment in research.

Michael Hayes:               I would just add that there’s so much information that’s available now and it just keeps getting more and more available. It’s really about how do you focus that information for the decision-maker so that they can make the right decisions and change their sphere of the world, their space in a way that is meaningful and actually makes a difference.

And so, I think that’s what Roger and I have always tried to do for our own careers.

Michael Hayes:               … oftentimes, people do not realize the time and the commitment that it takes to do these things. And so, you need to make sure that you have a long term commitment to try to improve these engagements, these interactions with the decision-makers. And, science sometimes doesn’t operate that way. Sometimes it’s a three-year project or a one-year project, and you don’t get to this long term commitment of trying to improve the interactions between society and science. And so, we’ve actually been able to do that over this long period of time. I think that’s when you start to see some progress being made. It’s been that long term commitment.

Roger Pulwarty:            It’s been that exactly long term commitment. And then, along with that, the notion that information by itself is not enough. And in fact, the development of information, rigorous or otherwise, is actually the shorter part of the activity. What Mike is describing, is that long term engagement that builds trust with people, but then also allows them to evaluate what you’re giving them.

So, it’s not a push in the sense that you’re marketing, “Well, the world is changing over time, you got to do something about it.” Well, unless you’re also giving people a pathway on how to act and providing the science that lets them make informed decisions, then all we have given them is another paper. And, as we know, that’s really critical for knowledge development, but not knowledge practice.

Michael Hayes:               I think the public’s really looking for humility in how we provide this information… Yeah, this information forward. If they feel like we’re trying to sell something, then I think it makes our job a lot tougher.

Roger Pulwarty:            Yeah.

Michael Hayes:               So, what you try to do is, you try to understand where they’re coming from and listen, and then approach that all with humility. And again, that takes time to build that trust that Roger has been talking about.

Roger Pulwarty:            Yeah.

Greg Ruff:                     What do you really like about working with each other?

Michael Hayes:               Well, as you know, Roger, he can…

Greg Ruff:                     Don’t be too honest.

Michael Hayes:               Just has a great perspective and is able to see things beyond just your standard soundbite. So, Roger really gets people to think about issues, and challenges the

ideas and the perspectives that they might have had or held for a long period of time. So, I think that’s one thing that makes Roger really successful is how he gets other people to think and really go deep in how they view an issue.

Greg Ruff:                     You get to do the same thing for him.

Roger Pulwarty:            So, from that standpoint, I can say the same thing about Mike. I want to add, however, one of the greatest things that I respect about Mike is that he does in fact listen. We’ve learned that we should listen, and instead, what we do is we just keep quiet until we’re ready to talk.

Greg Ruff:                     There’s a difference.

Roger Pulwarty:            There is a big difference, right? Mike, on the other had, means very much when we says, you listen to the stakeholder, the partner, but he’s analytical, to boot. This isn’t just simply saying, “You are right because you are the stakeholder.” He’s crafting a space in which we can both talk about what we need and what we want. And, he’s excellent at doing that, in creating that space in which science and society interact on a respectful level, but a rigorous level. So, I want to make sure of that, that I communicate that to you because in many settings, we’ve now yes, you must deal with the stakeholders. That means, “What do you want, and how can I provide it, even if it’s wrong?” When in fact, done respectfully, done in the way Mike does it, you bring in these groups, but you’re not simply putting a scientist above a practitioner, or vice versa.

Between us, we can find the right answer. And he crafts that situation in his dynamic, how he handles the different frames that each of those brings to bear, and that’s probably the most critical thing, uncovering the frame that other people around the table have. 

Roger Pulwarty:            The first thing that drives both of us is equity, that’s the first thing. Are we making just decisions and just use of scientific information so that we’re benefiting people of all stripes? I come from a very small village in the Caribbean of 400 people, right? My interest in climate comes from seeing folks who, when the rains failed, their crops failed. And so, Mike’s point about people’s livelihood is critical. I also feel the same way about ecosystems and about animals. But, one of the things that binds, I think both of us, is this notion that there is the environment, there’s growth, but underlying all of that is a sense of equity regarding who is affected how and what capacity do they have to respond?

Roger Pulwarty:            But, ensuring that the people whose lives are impacted and the people who are funding our science are the ones who are benefiting from it. So, they’re in the discussion, they’re in the open. You will listen to what they’re saying, but you find a path for them to act. But you make sure that that path is informed, science is at the table when they’re doing that. 

Michael Hayes:               I’ve been at a lot of meetings where there will be lots of discussion and Roger will stop the discussion and say, “Okay. But now, how are we going to move forward?”

Roger Pulwarty:            Right.

Michael Hayes:               And I think…

Roger Pulwarty:            Yeah, we both…

Michael Hayes:               Yeah, that’s great.

Roger Pulwarty:            Yeah. One of the things we learned a long time ago, both of us, one of my mentors, Gilbert White, used to always ask the question. He would sit me down

every month and he would go, “Are you doing anything useful?” And you had to know, you had to know if it was useful.

It didn’t mean necessarily, “Here’s the last paper I did,” it didn’t mean which academy panel you were on. It meant how do you know what you’re doing is something useful? I consider Mike to be someone who has invested his life in doing something useful, but doing that with a scientific basis. And so, I don’t want to short-change the fact that we’re here. We’re at the AGU and we’re drawing on the rich knowledge of a very, very diverse group of brilliant people.

Michael Hayes:               Yeah.

Roger Pulwarty:            And, our goal, in addition to trying to do that kind of work, is in fact getting at a respectful use of that information. Not denying, okay, we walk in with technical information and therefore we have nothing to listen or learn from someone else. The most important thing we do is uncovering what people value, and then we make the science fit into what they need.

Shane Hanlon:               Equity is so important…and it’s not the same as equality. The best example I’ve seen to explain is that picture three children of different heights on one side of a fence. Equality is giving each child the same size stool to see over the fence. But that doesn’t mean that each child will actually be able to see. Equity is ensuring that each child can see over the fence which may involve giving them different sized stools. Science communication is more than just sharing science with broader audiences. It’s ensuring that everyone has an equal seat at the table and I want to thank Roger and Michael for sharing their work with us.

Thanks also to Greg Ruff for conducting this interview.

If you like what you’ve heard, stay tuned for at least one more episode tucked in amongst your regular Third Pod episodes.

From this scientist in the studio, to all of you out there in the world, thanks for listening to our stories.