By Quirin Schiermeier
In the highly politicized world of climate science, public relations can win or lose battles that shape the Earth's future.
The past year has made that abundantly clear to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body charged with assessing the latest climate science, which has been beleaguered by critics of its methods and conclusions.
Now, the IPCC is looking for its very first Communications and Media Relations Programme Manager to help it avoid the pitfalls of the internet media age.
The panel, honored with the 2007 Nobel peace prize for its work, had a lot of explaining to do after journalists last year exposed errors in its last assessment report, published in 2007. Even IPCC officials admit that the group's crisis management was as egregious as the now-infamous statement that most Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 (see "Glacier estimate is on thin ice"). At the time, the IPCC had no full-time professional communications director who could have dealt with the matter in a timely way.
"In a world of rapid communication you cannot move at the speed of the slowest," says Nick Nuttall, Spokesperson and Head of Media with the United Nations Environment Programme, which set up the IPCC in 1988 jointly with the World Meteorological Organization. The glacier affair didn't need to become the feeding frenzy for the international media that it did, he says. "In scientific circles it had been known for months that something was badly wrong with the glacier claim. A skilled public-relations manager with a good network of relevant scientists could have nipped the problem in the bud before it burst on the scene, rather than having journalists claim a scoop," says Nuttall.
The new post follows a recommendation by the InterAcademy Council, a group of the world's leading national science academies which had earlier this year carried out a review of the IPCC's management structure and procedures (see "IPCC signs up for reform"). The new head of communication will be endowed with far-reaching responsibilities, including acting as an authoritative spokesperson to the media, as well as advising and coaching IPCC authors on how to interact with the media and the general public.
Scientists contacted by Nature warmly welcomed the move. "IPCC has had limited ability to respond to criticism, and less transparency in its operations than the world expects of it. This development, if properly implemented, should help in both respects," says Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist and policy researcher at Princeton University in New Jersey.
But given the uncertainties involved in climate change, the widespread and heartfelt mistrust of the research backing it, and the IPCC's delicate role at the crossing point of science and politics, many reckon that the communications chief will face a difficult task. "It will be a very challenging job," says Michael Mann, a climate researcher at Penn State University in University Park. Critics "will be taking pot shots from the sidelines at every turn".
"But the clearer we can be in communicating scientific knowledge, the harder it will be for professional climate-change deniers to manufacture false doubt, confusion and controversy", he says. "It isn't enough to just report the scientific findings. We need to strive to do so in a way that makes them accessible to the person on the street."
Hans von Storch, director of the Institute for Coastal Research in Geesthacht, Germany, believes that communication of climate science has become more balanced as a result of the IPCC's glacier error and the coincident scandal over the release of the e-mail correspondence of a group of prominent climate scientists. Even so, he adds, the science is often still reported in an emotional or distorted manner.
"Debate over climate change has become dangerously polarized," he says. "The IPCC's future head of communication must keep well clear of the exaggerations brought forward by both alarmists and skeptics."
"We wholeheartedly welcome this post," says Simon Dunford, a press officer at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, where the e-mail affair occurred. "Clear communication of the complex--and at times unpalatable to some--findings of climate scientists around the world is fundamental to tackling this hugely challenging issue."
So who might be best placed to do the job, and what skills will be needed to do it well? "It'll take much more than just the ability to explain how tree rings form and the like," says von Storch. "After all, this is not about tutoring science to the supposedly uneducated public. Rather, a good science communicator will take into account that scientific knowledge competes with alternative claims to knowledge--religious, cultural or other."
IPCC's future head of communication will need to understand the mindsets of journalists and scientists equally well, says Nuttall. And, most important, he or she will need the confidence of the chairs and co-chairs of the IPCC's various working groups, and the clout to be able to knit them together into a common voice, he says.
Nuttall, whose organization has often assisted the IPCC with press releases, says he hopes the IPCC will in future also put emphasis on supporting journalists from developing countries who are "crying out" to get access to scientific expertise concerning their own countries. Given that the IPCC is often perceived as being "Western science," it will be essential to look at candidates from a developing country-although in the end it is the best person for the job that should be selected, he says.
But the communications chief must not be overburdened with tasks and expectations, Nuttall warns. "As head of communications of a UN body you can all too easily become the jack of all trades but the master of none," he says. "So whoever gets this post must not be asked to do thousands of other little jobs that will paralyse him or her from carrying out their core responsibility."