News Release

Advancing public engagement at the Ecological Society of America

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Utah

JJ Horns, University of Utah

image: JJ Horns, a STEM Ambassador in the Biology Department, shares bird identification tips with Splore guides. view more 

Credit: Courtesy Caitlin Weber

With the growing concern for global and local environmental issues, ecologists in academia, agencies and the nonprofit sector are increasingly interested in learning how to more effectively communicate to and learn from the policymakers and other public audiences. High-level science administrators from the National Science Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences are now calling for ecologists and other scientists become active players in bridging gaps between science and society.

“Over the past decade, there has been a trend towards a greater recognition that public engagement is not a burden or ‘add-on,’ but rather a healthy part of the scientific process,” said Nalini Nadkarni, vice-president for education and diversity for the Ecological Society of America and professor at the University of Utah. “Ecologists are now realizing that fostering relationships with the public can help their own understanding of the natural world.”

However, ecologists encounter little or no training to communicate to people outside of academia at any time in their careers. Although a few formal science communication programs have emerged, they have reached only a relatively small cadre of ecologists. No central database exists for ecologists to benefit from the experience of others who have been successful in engaging the public.

This year, the annual meeting of the ESA in Portland, Oregon, Aug. 6-12, 2017, will be the locus of multiple efforts to train and connect ecologists who are deeply interested in public engagement of their research. Special sessions that feature case studies of successful engagement events, approaches and protocols will be offered.

Melissa Kenney, University of Maryland, will offer a session titled "Engagement 2.0: Increasing our Collective Impact." In this session, Nadkarni will present on the STEM Ambassador Program she directs, funded by the National Science Foundation (2016-2018) to train University of Utah scientists to carry out public engagement of underserved public audiences in the venues of community groups. Jane Lubchenco, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and the former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 2009-2013, will speak on the moral and political imperatives to bridge science and society.

Other ecologists from across the country will describe their approaches and practices with ESA members. Emily Therese Cloyd of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will chair a workshop on tools for ecologists to engage the public, based on effective workshops offered by AAAS. Alison Mize, a member of the Science Office of ESA, will offer a workshop on how ecologists can participate in public policy and communicate with Congress.

Nadkarni and Kenney have also organized a social event at the meeting to bring together ecologists involved with these nascent but strong efforts to engage with people outside of academia. They hope that attendees will come away from these sessions aware of the growing value of public engagement as they provide and receive training and join the network of ecologists who view public engagement as a critical part of the scientific endeavor.

What is ESA?

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) is professional society of over 10,000 members who “conduct research, teach, and use ecological science to address environmental issues.” The annual meeting attracts over 4,000 scientists.

Goals for emphasizing public engagement at the ESA Conference

  • Broaden opportunities and decrease the perceived barrier for public engagement participation by ESA members.
  • Strengthen public engagement excellence by a small group of diverse scientists who have a track record of successful engage with different audiences.
  • Develop an initial strategy for institutionalizing public engagement within the society.

Public engagement activities at the ESA Conference

Additionally, plenary speakers will include the topic of public engagement in their talks.


Questions related to the events can be addressed to>Nalini Nadkarni, vice president for education and diversity of the Ecological Society of America and professor at the University of Utah.

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