Pushing past politicization: An interview with Rear Admiral David Titley

By Heather Mannix and Meg Nakahara

Mar 19, 2017


Minute Read


Many scientists fear repercussions from engaging around contentious subjects like climate change—anything from losing connections and opportunities, to jeopardizing their careers and credibility. But there are still productive conversations to be had, even in highly politicized environments. Continuing to engage, even when it’s difficult, is crucial for society to be able to make informed decisions for the environment, and there are many ways to navigate policy discussions without sinking under the strain.

Rear Admiral (ret.) David Titley is a meteorologist by training and the Director of the Penn State Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk. His scientific background in weather, climate, and the Arctic, and his military experience and understanding of how climate affects global relations and national security, have led him to provide testimony for Congress several times, including for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in 2010 and 2013, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2014, and the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in 2015.  We spoke with him about preparing to share science around politicized subjects, and what that experience can be like; we’re excited to share his thoughts and advice around communicating effectively with tough audiences here.

Know the context

Before you sit down to talk about the science around politicized subjects, you should be aware of the larger conversation you’re joining. What kind of discussions are already happening around your research topic? How can your perspective and insight help inform your audience’s understanding? What can you bring to the conversation? And if you were invited, why do you think you were chosen? Trying to understand how your science and perspective fit into the bigger picture and the political space around a topic will help you to prepare.

“Figuring out what role they’re bringing you in to play can help you know what kind of questions you’ll get, and what might work best for your remarks. It’s also important to think about what makes you unique, and what perspectives will be valuable to share about that. I’m a retired military officer and a PhD scientist, which isn’t as common as you might think.”

Do your homework

Understanding your audience is a key component of effective science communication. Public figures like policy makers often provide a wealth of information online about what they’re interested in, what they think their constituents care about, and how they look at a subject. That information can be incredibly useful as you try to anticipate what they want to hear about from you, and what kind of questions they might ask.

“Don’t underestimate Congress—they may not all have science degrees, but they’re smart people. Also, don’t confuse persona with intelligence; some representatives have a reputation, but that doesn’t mean they’re not also incredibly smart.

I’ve seen some smart people who just weren’t prepared for the lines of questioning they were getting. Research their views and talking points, so that you know what they’re likely to bring up and are ready to address those.”

Make a plan

Figure out what you want to say, and how you want to say it, in advance. Putting in the time up front makes a big difference in how effective you are. This goes not just for your presented remarks, but also for the questions that you’re likely to get. And then practice, practice, practice!

“Do what works for you—bullet point notes, but not fully written out speeches, work best for me. You need to stay true to your science without getting into the technical weeds. By and large, they don’t want details. Go for themes with broad appeal.

Some of the people in the room may have an agenda, and talking points that they won’t be swayed from; remember that if inaccurate statements about the science are left out there, uncorrected, they basically become fact. The homework you did on what talking points are likely to come up, allows you to be ready to address those inaccuracies, and have tactical wins for the science. Use any airtime you get to make your points, rather than trying to refute others; people will likely just remember your opponent’s points anyway.

Everyone has a story. Tell it!  Stories and analogies are compelling. A little humor goes a long way.”

Reach out to your network

Whether you have three days or three months to prepare, you don’t have to go it alone! Ask friends, family, and colleagues for help with background research, constructive criticism, and ideas for the kinds of questions you might get (you can also contact us!).

“If you have scientist colleagues who have recent peer-reviewed papers that you’d like to mention, reach out and ask if they can summarize their top 3-4 points and references—you won’t necessarily have time to read and digest all the papers you’d like to.

Have friends and family help you research, if you don’t have much time, and get them to run tough questions and softball questions with you, so that you’ve experienced it.  Look for honest feedback, and find opportunities to practice.”

Keep your cool

While dramatic quotes and clips around politicized science sometimes make the news, if your goal is to share your research, your messages in this setting are more likely to be well-received if you stay calm and professional.

“Don’t get drawn into anything too specific. No matter what ridiculous things are said, don’t react. If you don’t engage, you don’t give people air time that they don’t deserve.

Be unflappable. Take it all in stride. You’ll be nervous, but you’re the expert. A sure way to fail is to be as excitable and aggressive as others may be. If you stay calm and look like an adult, and they’re snorting and pouting, they wind up looking ridiculous. Non-verbal communication is as important as verbal communication. Optics matter—don’t let them see you sweat! Look confident. I was really nervous, but in the end, it was almost fun.”

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