ESSIC scientists finding out how to make climate indicators more user-friendly

Melissa Kenney’s recent research has centered on how to make scientific information more accessible to decision-makers in the public. In September, the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) assistant research professor visited the White House as an invited guest of the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team to attend a meeting about potential applications of behavioral science in the policy realm – the topic of President Obama’s executive order released the same day encouraging federal agencies to “develop strategies for applying behavioral insights to programs.”

“There’s a lot of insights from the social and behavioral sciences that aren’t being fully utilized,” Kenney said. “And part of those insights … provide ways of supporting the American public in better using policies or better adopting benefits that were put in place to help them.”

Kenney’s own research seeks insights into how lay audiences understand climate science indicators. Along with Dr. Irina Feygina, an ESSIC visiting assistant research professor formerly of the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, Kenney is evaluating the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s online list of indicators, which includes information such as Annual Greenhouse Gas Index trends, atmospheric CO2 levels and the concentration of chlorophyll in coastal waters.

The goal is to develop the indicators, which the USGCRP instituted in May as a proof-of-concept, into a resource “that would be flexible enough … for federal to local decision-makers,” Kenney said.

Next, funded by the University of Maryland ADVANCE program, she’ll survey user responses to a modification to an indicator visual to assess its content and presentation. The modification is to be based on themes that emerged from qualitative interviews with physical, ecological and social scientists.

“We figured if there were things that were confusing to the scientists, then they were probably going to be confusing to non-scientists as well, except more so,” Kenney said.

Michael Gerst, an ESSIC visiting assistant research professor, has been working with Kenney and the scientists who are providing input on the indicators. He said a primary challenge of the project is presenting scientific expertise in a way non-scientists can comprehend.

Scientists sometimes assume that if “you just give people information … they’re going to understand it – which we know anecdotally and in other ways is not really true,” Gerst said.

“What I’ve been working on are ways to get them to think collectively, very systematically about the system that they’re … experts in, and then helping them be able to show to non-experts how they thought in both a systematic and scientific way about the recommendations that they’ve made.”

Kenney co-authored a guest editorial for the October issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the journal of the Ecological Society of America, citing the USGCRP’s current set of indicators as “just a first step” toward a more comprehensive set of information about climate’s impacts on society. With an Oct. 7 White House memorandum “directing all Federal agencies to incorporate the value of natural, or ‘green,’ infrastructure and ecosystem services into Federal planning and decision making,” accessible and helpful information will be important.

As for her research on climate indicators, Kenney said she would ultimately like to learn “how people are using it, whether or not they are using using it, and what the barriers might be to the use of indicator information for decision-making.”