The poor understanding of science by the public and key policymakers has been regular complaint of scientists for a very long time. It seems to become a ever bigger item at gatherings of every scientific society. Each society endeavors to create vehicles for communicating the most important knowledge of its members to the general public through brochures, reports, web sites, etc.
And yet, as we all know, nothing seems to get much better. The public debate over climate change, ongoing attempts to advance ∐Intelligent design∑ and ∐Creation Science∑ and a new Creation Museum are more than just individual issues to respond to; they are a clear statement that the scientific community (emphasis on ∐community∑) needs to be more unified, systematic, and above all, effective in communicating to the public.
One example of extremely effective communication, albeit with no real quality control, is Wikipedia, a 6-year-old, free (an ad-free too) online encyclopedia with nearly 2 million articles in English and over 3 million articles in other languages. Wikipedia is the 9th most popular website in the world (since, I know that you are wondering, Yahoo, MSN and Google are the top three). Wikipedia had just under 43 million unique visitors in the just the month of January this year, and it’s popularity continues to grow.
If only we could be a fraction as effective in communicating science.
One project that is taking a page from Wikipedia∍s play book is the Earth Portal (www.EarthPortal.org) a free resource, launched in late April, for timely, objective, science-based information about the environment built by a global community of experts. The Earth Portal offers:
- The Encyclopedia of Earth – using the same software as Wikipedia, only its restricted to approve experts and all articles go through a peer review before being published to a public web site – includes over 2,500 articles from over 700 experts from 46 countries, so far.
- Earth News – Daily environmental news.
- The Earth Forum – a blog for discussion and debate,
- The Environment in Focus – a weekly, magazine-style exploration of a major issue led by a prominent expert.
The most interesting part about the Earth Portal is that it is designed to be a vehicle for the scientific/scholarly community to collectively communicate what they know to a global audience of non-experts. Any expert can request to become a contributor to the Earth Portal, just submit a CV, and receive a username (actually it∍s your real name, in the cause of transparency) and a unique password, and you are in. Some are requested to be Topic Editors in the area of their particular expertise. Some write new material, but most are simply reusing existing materials written for lectures, presentations or some other purpose, provided that it doesn∍t violate copy right laws.
And its not just individual experts; government agencies, scientific societies, NGOs with science expertise, and so forth are also contributing to the Earth Portal. Any individual or organization committed to communicating science-based, objective information on the environment is welcolm. There is an impressive International Advisory Panel (well of course there would be wouldn∍t there.)
An open-membership Environmental Information Coalition, with the National Council for Science and the Environment as its Secretariat (and here I come clean, I∍m the Executive Director of the Council) is the motive force behind the Earth Portal. The Environmental Information Coalition is intended as a vehicle for the scientific/scholarly/expert community which collective sets policies and makes decisions.
So is the Earth Portal going to shake things up and revolutionize science communication to public? It∍s too early to tell, but that∍s the goal.
Interest piqued? Visit the Earth Portal and consider lending your expertise. It∍s fun, and it will give you something new to add to the next conversation about the public∍s woeful understand of science.
Contributed by Peter D. Saundry, National Council for Science and the Environment