Why Communicating Science is So Money

Gavin Schmidt

I’ve been meaning to thrown in my congratulations to Gavin Schmidt of NASA and RealClimate.org, who is the first recipient of the American Geophysical Union’s new $ 25,000 annual prize for the year’s top climate science communicator.

Yes, you read that right, $ 25,000! (Full disclosure: I am on the board of directors of the American Geophysical Union, but I did not select Schmidt for the prize or have fore-knowledge of his selection; nor was I involved in the creation of the prize, which is funded by Nature’s Own.)

Schmidt is a very worthy choice—RealClimate.org has revolutionized climate science communication online since its inception in the mid-2000s. And Schmidt has built from that platform to become a major commentator, and a lucid one at that, on outlets like CNN.

But at least as newsy as Schmidt’s choice is the creation of this prize in the first place.

I can think of no greater signal that scientific organizations are placing a new value on communication, and a premium value at that. The AGU/Nature's Own prize is highly symbolic of changes that are occurring throughout the scientific community today, across disciplines and institutions, as communication and outreach are increasingly looked upon not as second fiddle to research, but as a necessary complement and core priority.

It’s not just climate science communicators, by the way—though they have, of necessity, been on the forefront.

But consider the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA), for whom I just delivered a plenary address in San Antonio yesterday.

When I arrived, SSSA leadership introduced me to their new public information campaign to spread the word about how the study of soils benefits society. They’ve put out three powerful and well produced videos that emphasize how this research pays off in terms of human health, clean water, and food security. (Watch them here, here, and here.)

As I think you’ll see when you watch these spectacular videos, this is high level stuff, and I hope it gets a very broad airing. And just as AGU’s $ 25,000 prize shows the value placed on science communication by that leading geosciences society, so the Soil Society’s new ad campaign demonstrates the premium it places on communication and outreach.

I’ve explained before why this is happening now—why scientists are awakening to the need to communicate. It’s a combination of frustration and necessity: Even as much of America continues to ignore or even attack scientific knowledge, the media—which never did such a a great job covering science in the first place—are now fleeing science coverage across the board.

Scientists now recognize that if they don’t step up, nobody will.

That awareness has been building for some time. But there was always a critical need for it to be accompanied by institutional incentives to reward those scientists who do excel at communicating–and structural changes in academia and at funding agencies that show similar priorities. And now, we’re observing those changes as well.

For science communication, it's a brand new day.


this didn’t happen right after the publication of Charney et al. 1979 NRC/NAS report:

As it is there is alota catchup to do…