Gunn gathers minds for earthly discussion

NPR personality Moira Gunn hosts a panel to gauge political, media influences on the Earth.

During Wednesday night’s “State of the Earth” panel hosted by NPR’s Dr. Moira Gunn, it was clear the point the panelists were driving home: A failure to communicate. They agreed there is an increasing need for communication within the scientific community and beyond.

Communication among academic disciplines, between scientists and the public, and between scientists and the media were all subsets in the discussion surrounding the current state of the Earth and how to handle discourse.

Photo: Veronica Magan
Moira Gunn led a discussion with scientists about the state of the Earth in Hendricks Chapel Wednesday night.

Watch our one-on-one video interview with Moira Gunn

Gunn started off by asking the three panelists to compare where we are today with 20 years ago. The panelists included: Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences at Stanford University; Carol Finn, research geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey; and Elsa Reichmanis from the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Common themes among the answers were “knowledge” and “connectivity,” spurring the question of how scientists relay what they know to others outside their field.

“Most of us like to sit in our offices by ourselves,” Finn said. But she said that’s not good enough anymore. Scientists have a responsibility in terms of “stepping up and conveying our science,” Finn said, whether it’s by joining professional groups, or just being willing to work with other disciplines.

“The issues we face today are big challenges no one individual or discipline is going to be able to address,” Reichmanis said.

 The panel also talked about the intersection of science and policy. Gunn referenced the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), such as plants engineered to survive on less water, and the disparity in the legalization and use of GMOs around the world. GMOs are used in the United States, but not in the European Union because of controversy that might not be the whole story, Reichmanis said.

“Because there was not effective communication, GMOs are banned in Europe, where they may actually prove to be very effective,” she said. Japan, on the other hand, is open to products like GMOs as long as they are clearly labeled.

These different decisions on how to handle GMOs are dictated by “political lobbying groups that are independent of science and technology,” Gunn said.

Solving the problem of how to deal with that disconnect requires a lot more effort on the part of those in the scientific community.

“It’s going to take every area within an academic institution,” Matson said. “It’s easy to say, but we have to work against our structures sometimes.”

Reichmanis said it’s crucial for scientists to be able to state more clearly what they do and how their work can help, while being honest about potential trade-offs.

She said it is also a matter of looking at current education systems. Matson said she sees a broad and basic misunderstanding of how the scientific process works.

“[People] are looking for absolutes. No scientific issue is ever closed,” Matson said. This can lead to a perception that if the scientific community does not have a solid answer, then it must not know what it is doing, she said.

As scientific communication depends on the media, Gunn talked about cuts in science reporting at newspapers, even at major U.K. newspaper The Guardian.  A smaller staff with weaker science credentials can lead to misinformation and errors in analysis, she said.

Leanna Mulvihill, an engineering senior at SUNY-ESF, said the night was tailor-made for her. 

 “I wish I could go grab a drink with all these ladies,” she said. “Driving home those big points about how important it is for scientists to communicate with the business and policy communities was really exciting because that’s what I want to do. It was neat to hear that from women who are doing it,” Mulvihill said.

 “I did see common themes that ran throughout–personal accountability and standardizing communication across disciplines,” said Alex Rydzak, a junior in the School of Information Studies. Rydzak said the discussion also got him thinking about what inclusion might mean for “home scientists” working on projects like alternative fuels.

We had a one-on-one chat with Moira Gunn, host of her public radio program Tech nation and author of "Welcome to BioTech Nation: My Unexpected Odyssey into the Land of Small Molecules, Lean Genes, and Big Ideas." She has interviewed over 3,000 people to help her audience get a glimpse of the "biotech" world. Gunn was the first women to earn a Ph.D in mechanical engineering from Purdue University and we talked to her a little bit about how important it is to have women in the technology and science industries. Host: Marissa Perlman Producers: Jessica Cunnington and Julia Palmer. Special Thanks to Theodore Rysz and Dani Villalobos.

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