Marcia McNutt, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey

I just returned from the 2010 AAAS meeting in San Diego.  Since I am really interested in science writing and communication, I attended most of the sessions along those lines.  While I took away many awesome tips and saw many fantastic presentations, I was still shocked at how bad some people were at communicating.  At a conference where communication and engaging the public was a key topic, it was a shame.

There were way too many instances of people reading from their notes – eye contact people!  Even some of the plenary speakers seemed quite uncomfortable with their material.    Marcia McNutt, the Director of the U.S. Geological Survey was particularly painful to watch on Sunday night.   Her lecture was filled with “um”s and awkward pauses while she consulted her notes to figure out which slide she was showing.  One moment in particular had me and my conference buddy in a fit of giggles we almost couldn’t hold in: Referring to the slide (see below) on California’s efforts in marine planning, she mentioned the picture on the bottom right saying, “And this is a picture of…” here she paused, we waited eagerly, “…fish.”

California Marine Planning

Unintentional humor aside, I found her lack of preparation disrespectful to her many esteemed colleagues in the audience (not including of course this lowly blogger/grad student).  Maybe she’s super busy with her governmental business, but I hope she’s got it more together when meeting with the President.  And what was she wearing?  Were those leggings???

Another particularly stand-out session for its miserable presentations was Communicating Science: Covering Global Climate Change and Adaptation from the Ground Up.  I had such high expectations for the session too seeing as it was organized by likes of Deborah Blum, a bright, chirpy woman and fantastic science writer, and Phil Hilts, an old-guard newspaper man with tons of personality now working with the MIT Knight Fellows program.

While the first two presentations were merely ok, I can excuse them.  The first woman, Dalia Abdel-Salam was from Egypt, and didn’t have great English, and didn’t seem to have much experience with presenting, but hey, she’s a woman reporting in an Arab speaking country on a very difficult, controversial topic, so props to her.  And the second, James Fahn, has been living and working in Thailand trying to improve the coverage of climate change in the developing world, awesome as well.

The third presenter, Margot Roosevelt from the LA Times, really had no excuse.  She has tons and tons of experience talking with people.  Yet her presentation was read off notes, had no visuals, and she seemed extremely disaffected and blase about the whole thing.  Why did she agree to speak at this session if this is her attitude about covering climate change?  Maybe this is just how she comes off in person?  Anyone ever seen her present before?

However, the pain of sitting through these presentations was rewarded with a exceptionally spicy Q&A at the end that even included an honest-to-goodness climate change skeptic!  After being cut off by the moderator, he managed to ask why people were denying the seriousness of the the so-called Climategate emails (read my take on the not-so-climate-scandal here).  James McCarthy, a climate change expert, and also one of the discussants for the session (I imagine the questioner’s glee to have cornered an honest-to-goodness climate scientist), handled the question admirably, unhesitatingly challenging the questioner.  He argued that many of the quotes from the email used words like “tricks” that can also be found in the scientific literature, and that anyone’s email probably contains some pretty negative stuff if taken out of context. McCarthy said he was sure that after investigation it would be clear there was no scientific misconduct – and countered by asking who is investigating the hacking of the emails in the first place.

This then led into a discussion of why climate scientists are so afraid to engage the public.  In my opinion this unwillingness to engage the critics damages scientists’ reputations and decreases the public’s trust of climate science.

Another point that was brought up again and again at the conference was the need for scientists to engage with social media.  This is where average Americans interact, so to reach these people, scientists really need to be a part of it.

And I’ll leave you all with some valuable words from Marcia McNutt’s speech last night, “um, and so um.”