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June 7, 2010 [feather]
Academia and damage control

In recent months, climate science has suffered a serious--and arguably well-deserved--body blow. The damage to credibility and reputation are real--and require a response from climate scientists. Here's what Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, thinks should happen:

An opinion poll at the turn of the year found that the proportion of people in the US who trust scientists as a source of information about global warming had dropped from 83 per cent in 2008 to 74 per cent. A survey carried out by the BBC in February found that just 26 per cent of British people now believe climate change is established as largely human made, down from 41 per cent in November last year.

Regaining the confidence and trust of the public is never easy. Hunkering down and hoping for the best - climate science's current strategy - makes it almost impossible. It is much better to learn from the successes and failures of organisations that have dealt with similar blows to their public standing.

Climate science needs professional help to rebuild its reputation. It could do worse than follow the advice given by Leslie Gaines-Ross, a "reputation strategist" at PR company Weber Shandwick, in her recent book Corporate Reputation: 12 steps to safeguarding and recovering reputation.

Gaines-Ross's strategy is based on her analysis of how various organisations responded to crises, such as desktop-printer firm Xerox, whose business plummeted during the 1990s, and NASA after the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003.

The first step she suggests is to "take the heat - leader first". In many cases, chief executives who publicly accept responsibility for corporate failings can begin to reverse the freefall of their company's reputations. But not always. If the leader is held at least partly responsible for the fall from grace, it can be almost impossible to convince critics that a new direction can be charted with that person at the helm.

This is the dilemma facing the heads of the IPCC and CRU. Both have been blamed for their organisations' problems, not least for the way in which they have dealt with critics, and both have been subjected to public calls for their removal. Both organisations appear to believe they can repair their reputations without a change of leadership.

The second step outlined by Gaines-Ross is to "communicate tirelessly". Yet many climate researchers have avoided the media and the public, at least until the inquiries have reported.

This reaction may be understandable, but it has backfired. Journalists following the story have often been unable to find spokespeople willing to defend climate science. In this case, "no comment" is commonly interpreted as an admission of silent, collective guilt.

Remaining visible is only a start, though: climate scientists also need to be careful what they say. They must realise that they face doubts not just about published results but also about their conduct and honesty. It simply won't work for scientists to continue to appeal to the weight of the evidence while refusing to discuss the integrity of their profession. The harm has been increased by a perceived reluctance to admit even the possibility of mistakes or wrongdoing.

The third step put forward by Gaines-Ross is "don't underestimate your critics and competitors". This means not only recognising the skill with which the opponents of climate research have executed their campaigns through blogs and other media, but also acknowledging the validity of some of their criticisms. It is clear, for instance, that climate scientists need better standards of transparency that allow for scrutiny not just by their peers but also by critics from outside the world of research.

It is also important to engage with those critics. That doesn't mean conceding to arguments based on ideology rather than evidence, but there is an obligation to help the public understand the causes of climate change, as well as the options for avoiding and dealing with the consequences.

To begin the process of rebuilding trust in their profession, climate scientists need to follow these three steps. But that is just the start. Gaines-Ross estimates that it typically takes four years for a company to rescue and restore a broken reputation. Winning back public confidence is a marathon, not a sprint. But you can't win at all if you don't step up to the starting line.

Ward's observations are right on the mark--and not just for climate science. Arguably, they could be extended to academic scientists in general, and even more broadly to academia.

Loss of public trust in academia is a real problem right now--and without it, academia can't really exist in a healthy, productive way. As the AAUP's 1915 Declaration of Principles notes, academic freedom exists as part of a public trust--the public grants it, and, if the public isn't convinced that academics are worthy of it, it can take academic freedom away. That's happening, incrementally, but decisively.

But as a general rule, academia doesn't take public concern about its conduct or value very seriously, except insofar as it sees that concern as a contemptible impediment to business as usual. But higher ed's bubble is bursting. And along the way, academic freedom is disappearing. There is a way out--but it requires humility, recommitment to first principles, openness to reform, and a willingness to engage with the public rather than build barricades.

Will that happen? I'm skeptical. As Glenn Reynolds notes in his new piece on the higher ed bubble, traditional colleges and universities are, by virtue of their costly, ineffective intransigence, taking themselves out of the game. Going forward, he suggests, "the real pioneering will be in online education and the work of 'edupunks' who are more interested in finding new ways of teaching and learning than in protecting existing interests."

In alternative higher ed delivery models, are we looking at the collegiate equivalent of the school choice movement?

posted on June 7, 2010 7:01 AM

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NASA didn't need better PR tactics, it needed a better safety culture in which there would be less conformity and more willingness to speak out about potential problems. It's not socially valuable to have shuttles continuing to crash while handling the resulting negative media coverage more professionally.

Much the same is true for climate science and perhaps for academic research in general: less pressure to conformity would lead to more truthful results and hence for less need for PR spin.

Posted by: david foster at June 7, 2010 3:39 PM

I have a new piece on "Hyping Higher Ed," link at my blog.

Posted by: david foster at June 8, 2010 6:55 AM

We continue to thaw from the last ice age. Why? Because we are. If one knows the causes of an ice age then one can begin to construct a theory as to why we thaw. We sit at 10% ice coverage. In its warmer periods the Earth is at 3% ice coverage. We continue to thaw. It happened before humanity and shall continue after there is no humanity. The Wheel of Life spins...

Posted by: Odins Acolyte at June 10, 2010 8:31 AM