Tufts ENVS: Communicating Science

This week’s Environmental Studies Lunch & Learn dealt with a topic important to environmental policymaking: Communicating Science. How can a policymaker or news outlet take important yet complex information and make it accessible to an audience that hasn’t had years of relevant education in the field? Erin Allweiss, who majored in environmental studies and international relations at Tufts, has had a long career in communications. She has worked as a campaign coordinator for Oxfam America, press secretary for the Natural Resources Defense Council, communications manager for the U.S. House of Representatives, and is currently the founder and owner of No.29 Communications.

Erin Allweiss: Founder of No.29 Communications and Tufts alum

Erin Allweiss: Founder of No.29 Communications and          Tufts alum

Allweiss stresses the importance of storytelling. She cites Rachel Carson (author of “Silent Spring), Upton Sinclair (“The Jungle”) and Al Gore (“An Inconvenient Truth”) as thinkers and communicators who were able to take intricate problems at the intersection of business, public health, food and the environment and make them easily digestible to a mass audience. Recently, in an effort to show the effects of global warming, President Obama joined famous TV explorer Bear Grylls on an expedition to the Alaskan Arctic. In order to actually reach the intended audience, the hook of a story needs to draw a reader or viewer in. If Obama were to give another speech about global warming it would likely reach the same audience that always listens to his views on the environment. Joining an episode of Bear Grylls’ show on NBC gave him the expanded reach that is necessary in furthering environmental progress.

Allweiss used her involvement in news of Obama’s push to reinstate the Superfund Tax as an example of the next step in effectively communicating complex issues. The tax, which is levied on oil producers, refineries, chemical manufacturers and others, was instated by Jimmy Carter in the 70s to clean up superfund sites that have been heavily contaminated and demand long-term remediation. Allweiss worked closely with the New York Times editorial board to ensure that “legislative speak” was adequately translated into layperson’s terms.

It’s easy to become complacent or assume a higher degree of understanding among the general population once you become educated on an issue. Allweiss reminds us of the importance to constantly consider how difficult it can be to convey complex information and how important it is to work toward more effective communication in science..