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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth: Climate 411 -- AGU sets up volunteer service of climate scientists who will answer journalists' questions on climate science

Climate 411

When I was starting out in science journalism in the early 1980s, a writer had three choices to begin reporting a story. You could go to your publication’s wall of dusty encyclopedias of professional and scientific associations, phone directories and other reference tomes lining the walls (in my case, at  Science Digest magazine). You could raid a more experienced colleague’s Rolodex. Or you could call the  Scientists Institute for Public Information, S.I.P.I, a nonprofit group founded in 1963 and mainly paid for by media companies and foundations to provide, in essence, directory assistance for journalists seeking scientists.

These days, a journalist, or anyone else, can in seconds find heaps of scientists studying glaciology or marine mammal endocrinology or the toxicity of petroleum with a mouse click. But finding someone who’s reliable and appropriate for a particular piece is a tougher challenge.

Avoiding getting an expert more interested in making a policy point than explaining the science is a tough challenge, as well. That was the logic behind the much-discussed paper in this week's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that aimed in part to clarify  which publishing climate scientists are most credible.

Today, the American Geophysical Union announced that it will try to help fill the source gap on climate science. The details are below. It’s great to see any scientific institution these days recognize the importance of deeper involvement in helping foster informed public discourse. As I’ve said a lot lately,  traditional journalism, and particularly specialized journalism, is a shrinking wedge of a fast-growing pie of communication.

If academic and professional institutions with lots of expertise on scientific issues of great import shy away from the public arena, they leave that space to other groups that may put some background agenda ahead of accuracy.

Note that the geophysical union is offering up experts expressly in climate science, not policy, which is outside the research focus of its members for the most part. Here’s the group’s news release:
Climate experts available to answer journalists’ science questions
WASHINGTON - A growing number of climate scientists are signing up with the American Geophysical Union (AGU) to serve as sources for the news media of accurate scientific information about climate. So far, more than 115 climate specialists have volunteered for AGU’s new referral database. The database will enable AGU staff to readily match questions from reporters to experts in relevant disciplines. All of the scientists who have signed up to date are members of AGU, the world’s largest organization of Earth and space scientists, which has 58,000 members.
AGU is establishing this new service in order to better address journalists’ needs for accurate, timely information about climate science. This initiative follows another effort that was conceived of and organized by AGU members last December around the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. That project brought together journalists and climate scientists, via email, so that reporters covering the conference could get climate science questions answered around the clock.
The new referral service will receive journalists’ questions and other queries via emails or phone calls to AGU’s press office staff, who will then pass queries along quickly to appropriate scientist-volunteers. This new service will match scientists to reporters’ queries primarily during business hours (East Coast USA) and will be ongoing.
Journalists should contact AGU press officers Peter Weiss (, Maria-Jose Vinas (, or Kathleen O’Neil ( with climate questions and requests to speak with climate scientists. Questions should focus on science, not on policy, and should include a deadline so that responses can be returned with appropriate speed. Answers to questions will reflect the responding scientists’ knowledge and research and do not represent official positions of the AGU.
Climate scientists from 14 countries have signed up for the service to date. The volunteers can all communicate in English, and many of them are also fluent in other languages. So far, the expert pool includes speakers of German, Chinese, Spanish, and 15 other languages.

To evaluate how well this new service fulfills its objectives, AGU will collect data on requests and responses, and will solicit feedback periodically from scientists and journalists who participate in using the service.

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