Communicating simply about a complex ocean ecosystem

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Wednesday, April 19 2017

Editor's note: The following post by Fellow Linwood Pendleton first appeared on ResponSEAble's blog.

Scientists revel in untangling tough problems. That’s good because explaining how a complicated ocean ecosystem works is essential to predicting the effects of ocean change. However, complexity makes communicating new research about these ecosystems a real challenge. Too much complexity can confuse your audience, even one that is scientifically literate. Too much complexity can hide the messages that you want to communicate.

This means researchers who want their research to be heard have two opportunities to manage complexity: in the design of their research and how they choose to communicate it.

1. Research design: define your research question simply and ask what degree of complexity is needed to answer the question

I recently led an interdisciplinary team of 18 scientists in a research project to synthesize and map oceanographic and human data to understand where ocean acidification and climate change would cause the biggest threats to coral reefs and the people who depend on them. The research included oceanographers, biologists, ecologists, remote sensing specialists, economists, social scientists, and professionals from government and the non-profit world.

Each member of the team came with their own interpretation of this complex question. Not surprisingly, everyone was eager to see this complexity reflected in their contribution to our research.

While better and better computing makes it possible to manage the technical aspects of increasing levels of complexity, more complexity doesn´t necessarily translate into better science. So, from the very beginning, we had to ask our fellow researchers to simplify - what data and what factors are essential to understand your part of our interdisciplinary system? What happens when we remove or add a factor? Does it change our findings? If not, do we need that extra element, that extra level of complexity?

2. Communicating science: using a series of simple answers to build a complex story

The approach to reducing complexity in research design follows from an age old research principle that the simplest explanation to a complex problem is usually the best explanation. While this wisdom certainly applies to research design, it also applies to explaining complex problems and results. Research, like a fine meal, must be consumed in a series of small, manageable bites.

Reducing the complexity of research on ocean ecosystems does not mean dumbing down your science, it means delivering science in a series of short chapters. If you can get the readers hooked, and don’t confuse them, you can tell a complex story. But that takes work and training that many scientists don’t have.

Returning to our work on global change and coral reefs, we distilled our complex findings into bite-sized tweets, stories, images and maps - each was scientifically rigorous and designed to address a part of the research that appealed to a different audience. Each was intended to draw the reader in, so we could explain the rest of our complex findings. And it worked.

Our findings were highlighted in media as diverse as the Washington Post,Italian GQ, and the Virgin Islands Daily News, in addition to other conventional science news outlets such as PLOS Research News, Duke TodayDuke the Chronicle. Each outlet highlighted a different angle of our work. Over the course of just a couple of days, more than 3,000 people read our “complex” research paper online (we also paid the $1,500 open access fee).

Being active on Twitter, working on the press release and giving interviews took time. In fact, I estimate that we may have spent more than 80 person hours just preparing a 400-word press release and the four tweets. It’s the kind of time many busy scientists might not take, but it can make the difference between research that is read and understood and research that simply sits on the shelf.

The global ocean ecosystem, including the people who depend on it, face an uncertain future. There is no doubt that the global ocean ecosystem and our role in it is complex, but we cannot let that complexity get in our way of understanding how to make it better. Nor can we let that complexity keep us from explaining why this system is so important and what we need to do to keep it healthy. As ocean scientists, we must grapple with this complexity, address it in our research, and then distill the most important points so we can start a long-term conversation about ocean conservation.

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