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The Ultimate Race on a Warming Planet: Education vs. Catastrophe

Home > News 22 February 2010
Climate Change: Science Communication Challenge of our times  

Paul Rose talksClimate change is posing both enormous challenges and presenting many opportunities for those engaged in science communication, a leading British explorer and TV science personality said.

“All of us – professional scientists and others - can help in communicating science, especially when it comes to a wide-ranging topic like climate,” said Paul Rose, during a panel discussion held at the British Council Colombo on 15 February 2010.

The panel, on ‘Communicating Science on a warming Planet’, was part of a one-day programme organized by the British Council with the support of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka and TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP).

Besides Paul Rose, the panel comprised Prof M T M Jiffry (Vice Chairman, University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka) and Dr Jayantha Wattavidanage (Senior Lecturer, Open University of Sri Lanka). The panel was moderated by TVEAP Director Nalaka Gunawardene, himself a science writer and broadcaster.


“Many stories in climate are complex and nuanced. Planetary level changes are happening in the polar regions and in the oceans. Since all of us can’t get to these ‘powerful places’, the next best thing is to use broadcast television and the web to bring those sights and sounds within everyone’s reach.”

- Paul Rose, explorer, science communicator and TV presenter

Rose noted how outstanding scientists are often not very good at communicating their research to policy makers or the public. There are a few gifted scientists who are also skilled at explaining the relevance and implications of their work to those outside their specialisation. Many scientists, however, rely on professional science communicators for outreach and public engagement.

Interestingly, Paul Rose sees himself not as a scientist, but more as a logistics person – an enabler of research and exploration. He has been described as one who helps field scientists – ranging from climatologists to oceanographers – to “unlock great global mysteries”.

Rose described additional challenges for science communicators. Among them is ‘connecting the dots’ – or relating individual findings to the bigger picture, findings trends and relevance in that process.

Talking Climate on a Warming Planet - From L to R - Nalaka Gunawardene, Paul Rose, Dr Jayantha Wattavidanage, Prof M T M Jiffry

He said: “Sometimes it’s a big leap from someone going around drilling a hole in the ice to coming on TV and saying that the climate is changing. I've been doing this for 30 years, and it takes a huge leap of faith to see these lumps of ice and then put in a global context.”

But Paul Rose has no doubt at all that man-made or human-induced global warming is now changing our planet’s climate. His personal ‘moment of revelation’ came in 2002 when a large chunk of ice separated from the Antarctica, where he has Base Commander of Rothera Research Station, Antarctica for the British Antarctic Survey for 10 years.

Everyone engaged in science communication has to ensure that the information is accurate, balanced and current. “Science is not a pursuit where everything is in black and white. There are many uncertainties or ‘gray areas’ in science, and that is part of the nuanced and complex picture that we have to present to our audiences,” Rose said.

All members of the panel emphasized the value of maintaining credibility – in messages, communications products and in communicators themselves.

Dr Jayantha WattavidanagePresenting a science educator’s perspective, Dr Jayantha Wattavidanage said: “Human beings respond not just to data or information, but to perceptions, emotions and beliefs. When we communicate science, we need to be aware of these additional factors that go beyond strict facts and figures.”

Prof M T M Jiffry agreed. “Starting with good information, we have much more to do in science communication. We often have to interpret the science for non-scientists. We might see this as a type of ‘translation’.”

Prof M T M JiffryPaul Rose noted how the global rolling out of the web has accelerated the processes of scientific research and publication. “In the rush to get results out, some scientists take calculated risks with the integrity and clarity of their research. There are growing numbers of digitally connected people worldwide who follow scientific results and discussions closely, often contributing informed perspectives to these debates.”

He also described the rise of citizen science where individual volunteers or networks of volunteers -- many with no specific scientific training -- perform or manage research-related tasks such as observation, measurement or computation. This has become wide-spread thanks to web-enabled processes such as distributed computing, he said.

In summing up the challenges of communicating climate change, Nalaka Gunawardene quoted H G Wells, British author and social activist (1866 – 1946), who said: "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

“Science is not a pursuit where everything is in black and white. There are many uncertainties or ‘gray areas’ in science, and that is part of the nuanced and complex picture that we have to present to our audiences.”
- Paul Rose


Nalaka added: “We science communicators have to work harder to ensure that public education can help humanity outrun and outpace catastrophe.”

On the same day, Paul Rose gave an illustrated public talk on ‘The Global Meltdown’ – What’s really happening with our climate?’. He shared the latest insights and images from his recently concluded Antarctic expedition where he led the science support for a climate change project in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica.

Paul Rose was introduced as ‘a man of many talents who continues to thrive on a lifetime of exploring, adventure, travel and inquiry’. His TV presenting credits include BBC Oceans, Voyages of Discovery, Take One Museum, and Meltdown.

Talking Climate

Photographs by TVEAP Image Archive


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