Teaching scientists to talk

Nancy Baron is a scientist who went to the dark side. She became a journalist. “Scientists are afraid of talking to journalists because they don’t know how to give it so anyone else can get it,” she said.

Nancy Baron is a scientist who went to the dark side.

She became a journalist.

“Scientists are afraid of talking to journalists because they don’t know how to give it so anyone else can get it,” she said.

Baron hopes to change this.

“I want scientists to come out of their ivory tower and engage with government and with society at large to inform society’s decision making,” she said.

“They need to talk to media to get their voice out to the wider world.”

But in Canada, this is getting tougher.

Since 2008, Environment Canada scientists have been ordered to refer all media queries to Ottawa.

In a marked change from previous governments, even basic demands for information, once easily fielded by department spokespeople, are now vetted by the Prime Minister’s office.

Baron refers to it as “muzzlegate.”

It’s not like this is the U.S., said Baron, who is the lead communications trainer for the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University.

As citizens, scientists can share their opinions, she said.

That’s not the case in Canada.

In fact, two Environment Canada scientists, who were scheduled to meet with the News in early December to discuss studies they’d conducted on contaminants in the North, were forced to cancel after word came from Ottawa that they were not allowed to do the one-on-one media interview.

“Hopefully the Canadian government will get to the point where they will allow scientists to speak as citizens,” said Baron.

In the interim, she is focusing on teaching scientists how to communicate.

Back when she was a biologist, working at Banff National Park, Baron couldn’t help noticing that scientists spent most of their time in a bubble.

“I increasingly felt scientists were just talking to themselves,” she said.

So Baron quit and took a job at the Vancouver Aquarium as its head of education.

“I wanted a job that would allow me to engage with the public,” she said.

Baron soon found herself moonlighting as a journalist, writing for local publications including the Vancouver Sun and the Georgia Straight.

Next thing she knew, Baron was winning national writing awards and publishing articles in Canadian Geographic, Equinox and Saturday Night.

But it wasn’t until she met Jane Lubchenco, the founder of the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, that Baron realized her calling.

“Jane asked me to help her bridge the gap between science and society,” said Baron.

Since then, Baron has been hosting workshop and lectures, teaching scientists how to drop the academic jargon and get to the meat of the matter.

“Scientists want to learn how to become more effective communicators,” she said. “They want their discoveries to transform society.”

Baron is in Whitehorse this week hosting a public lecture, the Risks and Rewards of Science Communication, on March 27 at the Beringia Centre. The lecture starts at 7:30 p.m.

There’s a lot of public confusion over hot button issues like climate change, endangered species and fisheries, she said.

Rather than finding consensus among scientists – something Baron can do within seconds – there is a strategy to create doubt, she said.

Baron refers to this as the “rent-a-scientist movement.”

“Corporations, or those whose oxen would be gored by increased regulation have hired scientists to help,” she said.

But many of these hired guns are actually consultants who end up being hired by one industry after another, said Baron, mentioning the tobacco industry and big oil.

That’s why Baron wants to help academic scientists reach a bigger audience. “Because they receive funding without a mandate attached,” she said.

Baron is also hosting an all-day workshop on March 28 at Yukon College with local scientists and researchers.

In past workshops, Baron has asked participants if they want their science to have an impact on society. “And 100 per cent of them stand up,” she said.

Young scientists are especially hungry for this, said Baron. “But even the old silver hairs are catching on.”

Recently, two University of Washington scientists discovered Alaska’s Bristol Bay sockeye salmon population was the healthiest in the world.

The reason is diversity of habitats. The fish occupy so many different habitats that if one is compromised, it doesn’t impact the overall population.

To make these academic findings more accessible, the scientists compared it to a balanced portfolio on the stock market, said Baron.

“Just like a balanced portfolio, it’s diversity of habitats that allow species to survive, rather than putting all your eggs in one basket,” she said.

This way the science makes sense to people, said Baron.

There are big issues facing us, she added. “And scientists need to communicate with the public to address these issues.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at gkeevil@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

NDP candidate Annie Blake, left, and Liberal incumbent Pauline Frost. (Submitted photos)
Official recount confirms tie vote in Vuntut Gwitchin riding

Both candidates Pauline Frost and Annie Blake are still standing with 78 votes each

Artist’s rendering of a Dairy Queen drive-thru. At its April 13 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved a zoning change to allow a drive-thru at 107 Range Road. Developers sought the change to build a Dairy Queen there. (Submitted)
Drive-thru approved by Whitehorse city council at 107 Range Road

Rezoning could pave the way for a Dairy Queen


Wyatt’s World for April 14, 2021.… Continue reading

Liberal leader Sandy Silver speaks outside his campaign headquarters in Dawson City following early poll results on April 12. (Robin Sharp/Yukon News)
UPDATED: Minority government results will wait on tie vote in Vuntut Gwitchin

The Yukon Party and the Liberal Party currently have secured the same amount of seats

École Whitehorse Elementary Grade 7 students Yumi Traynor and Oscar Wolosewich participated in the Civix Student Vote in Whitehorse on April 12. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Yukon Student Vote chooses Yukon Party government; NDP take popular vote

The initiative is organized by national non-profit CIVIX

Yvonne Clarke is the newly elected Yukon Party MLA for Porter Creek Centre. (Submitted/Yukon Party)
Yvonne Clarke elected as first Filipina MLA in the Yukon Legislative Assembly

Clarke beat incumbent Liberal Paolo Gallina in Porter Creek Centre

Emily Tredger at NDP election night headquarters after winning the Whitehorse Centre riding. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Emily Tredger takes Whitehorse Centre for NDP

MLA-elect ready to get to work in new role

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Two new cases of COVID-19 variant identified in territory

“If variants were to get out of control in the Yukon, the impact could be serious.”

Today’s Mailbox: Rent freezes and the youth vote

Dear Editor, I read the article regarding the recommendations by the Yukon… Continue reading

Point-in-Time homeless count planned this month

Volunteers will count those in shelters, short-term housing and without shelter in a 24-hour period.

The Yukon’s new ATIPP Act came into effect on April 1. Yukoners can submit ATIPP requests online or at the Legislative Assembly building. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News file)
New ATIPP Act in effect as of April 1

The changes promise increased government transparency

A new conservancy in northern B.C. is adjacent to Mount Edziza Provincial Park. (Courtesy BC Parks)
Ice Mountain Lands near Telegraph Creek, B.C., granted conservancy protection

The conservancy is the first step in a multi-year Tahltan Stewardship Initiative

Most Read