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Science communication

Communicating uncertainty about climate change

By | Climate change, News, Science communication | No Comments

The ways climate scientists explain their predictions about the impact of global warming can either promote or limit their persuasiveness.

The more specific climate scientists are about the uncertainties of global warming, the more the American public trusts their predictions, according to new research by Stanford scholars.

But scientists may want to tread carefully when talking about their predictions, the researchers say, because that trust falters when scientists acknowledge that other unknown factors could come into play.

In a study in Nature Climate Change, researchers examined how Americans respond to climate scientists’ predictions about sea level rise. They found that when climate scientists include best-case and worst-case case scenarios in their statements, the American public is more trusting and accepting of their statements. But those messages may backfire when scientists also acknowledge they do not know exactly how climate change will unfold.

“Scientists who acknowledge that their predictions of the future cannot be exactly precise and instead acknowledge a likely range of possible futures may bolster their credibility and increase acceptance of their findings by non-experts,” said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford professor of communication and of political science and a co-author on the paper. “But these gains may be nullified when scientists acknowledge that no matter how confidently they can make predictions about some specific change in the future, the full extent of the consequences of those predictions cannot be quantified.”

Effects of communicating uncertainty

Predicting the future always comes with uncertainty, and climate scientists routinely recognize limitations in their predictions, note the researchers.

“In the context of global warming specifically, scientific uncertainty has been of great interest, in part because of concerted efforts by so-called ‘merchants of doubt’ to minimize public concern about the issue by explicitly labeling the science as ‘uncertain,’” said Lauren Howe, who was a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford when she conducted the research with Krosnick and is first author on the paper.

“We thought that, especially in this critical context, it was important to understand whether expressing uncertainty would undermine persuasion, or whether the general public might instead recognize that the study of the future has to involve uncertainty and trust predictions where that uncertainty is openly acknowledged more than those where it is minimized,”

Howe said.

To better understand how the public reacts to scientists’ messages about the uncertainties of climate change, the researchers presented a nationally representative sample of 1,174 American adults with a scientific statement about anticipated sea level rise.

Respondents were randomly assigned to read either a prediction of the most likely amount of future sea level rise; a prediction plus a worst-case scenario; or a robust prediction with worst-case and best-case scenarios, for example: “Scientists believe that, during the next 100 years, global warming will cause the surface of the oceans around the world to rise about 4 feet. However, sea level could rise as little as 1 foot, or it could rise by as much as 7 feet.”

The researchers found that when predictions included a best-case and worst-case scenario, it increased the number of participants who reported high trust in scientists by 7.9 percentage points compared with participants who only read a most likely estimate of sea level rise.

Changes in environmental policies, human activities, new technologies and natural disasters make it difficult for climate scientists to quantify the long-term impact of a specific change – which scientists often acknowledge in their predictions, the researchers said. They wanted to know if providing such well-intended, additional context and acknowledging complete uncertainty would help or hurt public confidence in scientific findings.

To find out, the researchers asked half of their respondents to read a second statement acknowledging that the full extent of likely future damage of sea level rise cannot be measured because of other forces, such as storm surge: “Storm surge could make the impacts of sea level rise worse in unpredictable ways.”

The researchers found that this statement eliminated the persuasive power of the scientists’ messages. When scientists acknowledged that storm surge makes the impact of sea level rise unpredictable, it decreased the number of participants who reported high trust in scientists by 4.9 percentage points compared with the participants who only read a most likely estimate of sea level rise.

The findings held true regardless of education levels and political party affiliation.

Not all expressions of uncertainty are equal, Howe said: “Scientists may want to carefully weigh which forms of uncertainty they discuss with the public. For example, scientists could highlight uncertainty that has predictable bounds without overwhelming the public with the discussion of factors involving uncertainty that can’t be quantified.”

Read the paper: Nature Climate Change

Article source: Stanford University

Author: Melissa De Witte

Image credit: Jody Davis / Pixabay

2GPC-group-photo-Wuhan-China-2019

The Global Plant Council at ICAR2019

By | Blog, General, GPC Community, Science communication, Scientific Meetings | No Comments

GPC annual meeting group picture. From left to right: Xuelu Wang (ICAR2019 organizer); Weihua Tang (China Society Plant Biology); Blake Meyers (Danforth Center); Deena Errampalli (GPC Board of Directors Treasurer, President, Plant Canada); Bill Davies (GPC Past-President, UK Plant Sciences Federation); Isabel Mendoza (GPC communications officer); Barry Pogson (GPC chair, Australian Society of Plant Scientists); Geraint Parry (SEB, MASC) and Rodrigo Gutierrez (Chilean Society of Plant Biology)

One of the Global Plant Council’s (GPC) principal objectives is to reach the global plant science audience. And to pursue this aim, the GPC annual meeting is held every year in parallel to a big plant science conference.

In accordance with this practice, the GPC took its annual meeting this June to the 30th International Conference on Arabidopsis Research (ICAR2019). This international conference was held on June 16-21, 2019 in Wuhan, China and attended by over 1,000 plant scientists from around the world.

GPC also took an active part in the conference itself hosting two of the offered workshops. Understandably, many members of GPC board were there, either as invited speakers (Barry Pogson, GPC Chair); or as part of the workshops organizing team (Bill Davies, GPC past-president; Deena Errampalli, GPC treasurer; Yosuke Saijo (Board Member) and Isabel Mendoza (GPC communications officer).

Workshops

Role of the microbiome in sustainable agriculture

The first workshop “Role of the microbiome in sustainable agriculture” was held on the 18th June. Led by Deena Errampalli and Yosuke Saijo and with the participation from Bill Davies, Ruben Garrido-Oter and Kei Hiruma. Over 40 people attended the workshop, which provided participants with up-to-date knowledge on the role of the microbiome in Arabidopsis and its application on sustainable agriculture. Practical cases such as the Canadian ginseng were also introduced.

sustainable agriculture workshop

Communicating your science to the broader community

On the 19th June, the GPC team held the second of these workshops “Communicating your science to the broader community” addressed especially for early career researchers. Over 45 people attended. This meeting was led by Isabel Mendoza with the cooperation of Mary Williams (@PlantTeaching) and Geraint Parry (@GARNetweets). The meeting provided participants with clues on how to increase the impact of their own research, helping them understand the rules of science communication and tricks on how to profit from the more commonly used online channels.

This was the first dissemination activity of the recently established Early Career Researcher International (ECRi) network, an initiative that aims to help the ECRs in developing their careers. A dedicated post on the issues discussed at the workshop is on development. Stay tuned!

Interdisciplinary Science Communication Experiences in China

By | Blog, Fascination of Plants Day, Future Directions, Global Collaborations, Science communication | No Comments

Picture: Dr. Felix Fritschi, University of Missouri, while talking with China Agricultural University graduate students

Authors: Shannon K. King1,4, Jon T. Stemmle2, Robert E. Sharp3,4

1Department of Biochemistry, 2School of Journalism, 3Division of Plant Sciences, and 4Interdisciplinary Plant Group, University of Missouri, Columbia, USA

Second post of our “Global Collaboration” series

Earning a graduate degree in the life sciences is all about preparing students to become productive and competitive in today’s scientific field; ensuring they are at the cutting edge of technology and knowledge. However, one aspect of graduate education that is seemingly overlooked is extending outside of the lab and learning how to become a scientist in the global community. This oversight is something that scientists at the University of Missouri and China Agricultural University are working to combat.

In August 2018, faculty, graduate students and post-docs from both universities came together in Beijing for a workshop to discuss scientific areas of expertise ranging from wetland ecology to crop modeling. This allowed attendees to practice collaborating with other scientists internationally and across disciplines.

Joint Scicomm US-China Workshop

Introducing the concept of breaking multiple “language” barriers

One of the key skills the graduate students developed during the workshop was how to communicate science in multiple languages. The students had to overcome the challenges of communicating science in English and Chinese along with explaining it to scientists outside of their disciplines and then take those experiences and turn them into videos, stories and blog posts that the public could enjoy. 

Needless to say, the students quickly learned that not only is science communication difficult, but the degree of difficulty rises exponentially when trying to communicate with an audience outside of your native language and discipline. To tackle the language barrier, students avoided jargon and slowed their speaking pace to clearly articulate their points. Many times, the students from the two universities took the breaks between sessions to really talk to each other about the presentation content to solidify what the takeaways were. It was these informal discussions that led to very productive conversations. Students also pointed out the similarities and differences between their projects, allowing for bridges to be built between what would normally be very different fields. 

Another part of this workshop helped the students to learn how to better engage with the general public. While in China, the Missouri graduate students performed journalistic tasks in order to demonstrate what they learned and experienced during the workshop. They took video footage, interviewed workshop attendees and conceptualized how to turn all of that content into stories. When the Missouri students returned home, they began the process of creating content about the China trip. They had to make sure all videos, blogs, and articles were easily understandable to a non-science audience since everything would be eventually posted online at https://rootsindrought.missouri.edu/ and on Youtube.

Through this experience, University of Missouri students were able to take what they had learned in theory and put it into practice. These skills will help them to have a unique advantage compared with their peers and help them as they move into their academic and professional careers. 

Conclusions

There is no question that the scientific field is becoming more global and the general public is becoming increasingly skeptical of science. This makes it critical that we begin developing graduate programs to incorporate experiences that allow students to engage in the world outside the lab and learn to communicate why their science is beneficial to society, both at home and abroad.

Supported by NSF Plant Genome Program Grant no. 1444448 to R.E.S. and a 111 Program grant to Prof. Shaozhong Kang, China Agricultural University

Now That’s What I Call Plant Science 2015

By | Blog, Research, Science communication | No Comments

With another year nearly over we recently put out a call for nominations for the Most Influential Plant Science Research of 2015. Suggestions flooded in, and we also trawled through our social media feeds to see which stories inspired the most discussion and engagement. It was fantastic to read about so much amazing research from around the world. Below are our top five, selected based on impact for the plant science research community, engagement on social media, and importance for both policy and potential end product/application.

Choosing the most inspiring stories was not an easy job. If you think we’ve missed something, please let us know in the comments below, or via Twitter! In the coming weeks we’ll be posting a 2015 Plant Science Round Up, which will include other exciting research that didn’t quite make the top five, so watch this space!

  1. Sweet potato is a naturally occurring GM crop
Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop

Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop. Image from Mike Licht used under creative commons license 2.0

Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, found that 291 varieties of sweet potato actually contain bacterial genes. This technically means that sweet potato is a naturally occurring genetically modified crop! Alongside all the general discussion about GM regulations, particularly in parts of Europe where regulations about growing GM crops have been decentralized from Brussels to individual EU Member States, this story caused much discussion on social media when it was published in March of this year.

It is thought that ancestors of the modern sweet potato were genetically modified by bacteria in the soil some 8000 years ago. Scientists hypothesize that it was this modification that made consumption and domestication of the crop possible. Unlike the potato, sweet potato is not a tuber but a mere root. The bacteria genes are thought to be responsible for root swelling, giving it the fleshy appearance we recognize today.

This story is incredibly important, firstly because sweet potato is the world’s seventh most important food crop, so knowledge of its genetics and development are essential for future food supply. Secondly, Agrobacterium is frequently used by scientists to artificially genetically modify plants. Evidence that this process occurs in nature opens up the conversation about GM, the methods used in this technology, and the safety of these products for human consumption.

Read the original paper in PNAS here.

  1. RNA-guided Cas9 nuclease creates targetable heritable mutations in Barley and Brassica

Our number two on the list also relates to genetic modification, this time focusing on methods. Regardless of whether or not we want to have genetically modified crops in our food supply, GM is a valuable tool used by researchers to advance knowledge of gene function at the genetic and phenotypic level. Therefore, systems of modification that make the process faster, cheaper, and more accurate provide fantastic opportunities for the plant science community to progress its understanding.

The Cas9 system is a method of genome editing that can make precise changes at specific locations in the genome relatively cheaply. This novel system uses small non-coding RNA to direct Cas9 nuclease to the DNA target site. This type of RNA is small and easy to program, providing a flexible and easily accessible system for genome editing.

Barley in the field

Barley in the field. Image by Moldova_field used under creative commons license 2.0

Inheritance of genome modifications using Cas9 has previously been shown in the model plants, Arabidopsis and rice. However, the efficiency of this inheritance, and therefore potential application in crop plants has been questionable.

The breakthrough study published in November by researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory and John Innes Centre both in Norwich, UK, demonstrated the mutation of two commercial crop plants, Barley and Brassica oleracea, using the Cas9 system and subsequent inheritance mutations.

This is an incredibly exciting development in the plant sciences and opens up many options in the future in terms of genome editing and plant science research.

Read the full paper in Genome Biology here.

  1. Control of Striga growth

Striga is a parasitic plant that mainly affects parts of Africa. It is a major threat to food crops such as rice and corn, leading to yield losses worth over 10 billion US dollars, and affecting over 100 million people.

Striga infects the host crop plant through its roots, depriving them of their nutrients and water. The plant hormone strigolactone, which is released by host plants, is known to induce Striga germination when host plants are nearby.

In a study published in August of this year the Striga receptors for this hormone, and the proteins responsible for striga germination were identified.

Striga plants are known to wither and die if they cannot find a host plant upon germination. Induction of early germination using synthetic hormones could therefore remove Striga populations before crops are planted. This work is vital in terms of regulating Striga populations in areas where they are hugely damaging to crop plants and people’s livelihoods.

Read the full study in Science here.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed. Image from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture used under creative commons license 2.0

  1. Resurrection plants genome harvesting

Resurrection plants are a unique group of flora that can survive extreme water shortages for months or even years. There are more than 130 varieties in the world, and many researchers believe that unlocking the genetic codes of drought-tolerant plants could help farmers working in increasingly hot and dry conditions.

During a drought, the plant acts like a seed, becoming so dry that it appears dead. But as soon as the rains come, the shriveled plant bursts ‘back to life’, turning green and robust in just a few hours.

In November, researchers from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre in Missouri, US, published the complete draft genome of Oropetium thomaeum, a resurrection grass species.

O. thomaeum is a small C4 grass species found in Africa and India. It is closely related to major food feed and bioenergy crops. Therefore this work represents a significant step in terms of understanding novel drought tolerance mechanisms that could be used in agriculture.

Read the full paper in Nature here.

  1. Supercomputing overcomes major ecological challenge

Currently, one of the greatest challenges for ecologists is to quantify plant diversity and understand how this affects plant survival. For the last 500 years independent research groups around the world have collected this diversity data, which has made organization and collaboration difficult in the past.

Over the last 500 years, independent research groups have collected a wealth of diversity data. The Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN) are collecting and collating these data together for the Americas using high performance computing (HPC) and data resources, via the iPlant Collaborative and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). This will allow researchers to draw on data right from the earliest plant collections up to the modern day to understand plant diversity.

There are approximately 120,000 plant species in North and South America, but mapping and determining the hotspots of species richness requires computationally intensive geographic range estimates. With supercomputing the BIEN group could generate and store geographic range estimates for plant species in the Americas.

It also gives ecologists the ability to document continental scale patterns of species diversity, which show where any species of plant might be found. These novel maps could prove a fantastic resource for ecologists working on diversity and conservation.

Read more about this story on the TACC website, here.