"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.

Today, we take a look at the kind of professional incentives that discourage academic scientists from communicating with the public more clearly and forcefully about global warming.


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Academic Scientists’ Incentives: Specialized, Peer-Focused and Publicity-Averse

What are the incentives of academic scientists to propagate their findings throughout society? Scientists are rewarded largely for success in specialized research and for communicating what they learn to their peers. Their most striking findings trickle out to a wider audience, but the scientific community, by and large, is a rarefied, walled-off world. Peers are the source of professional esteem, of reviewers for one’s journal articles, and of the kind of dialogue and collaborative insights that can be critical to research breakthroughs. Given their proximity to this incentive-rich network of colleagues, most scientists resist diverting time to communicating with the media or the public, or injecting their expertise into the policy fray on issues like climate change. Most are also sensitive to reputational risks from being seen as too eager to gain public attention, or from extending beyond the secure core of their knowledge base amidst policy crossfire.

Before presuming that these tendencies should change, it is important to recognize that many regard them as crucial to the success and credibility of objective science. This does not mean, however, that the disadvantages should not be equally acknowledged when assessing their implications for the science-action gap on an issue like climate change. The costs of not having scientists speaking out can be high indeed, given their very high relative trust ranking in society; a 2005 Yale Environmental Poll found that 83 percent of Americans trust university scientists (compared to 62 percent who trust industry scientists and 56 percent who trust their state governor, for example).

Academic incentives are, as noted earlier, tradition-bound and enormously resistant to change. While many at the Conference thought changing academia was too steep a mountain to climb, others said its role as the generator and repository of scientific knowledge on climate change justified mounting a concerted influence strategy. Accordingly, Conference Recommendation #3 calls for reaching out at senior levels in universities — including to the presidents, trustees and tenure-granting faculty — to identify high-level actions that could modify the financial and reward structures within academia most responsible for inhibiting scientists from engaging in interdisciplinary research on issues like climate change and from devoting more of their time to communicating beyond their peer group.

The key here, as with many incentive structures, is persuading those in power that they would not be unilaterally "disarming" in a broader competitive battle if they made a decision to modify the incentive structures they administer.

Is there, for example, a leading research university that is prepared to modify its tenure-granting process in a way that values the public communications exertions and impact of the up-and-coming tenure candidates? Similarly, is there one that is prepared to truly value the kind of interdisciplinary research required on climate change, instead of the traditional level of specialization required for tenure and other forms of recognition?

If a specific university, sensing the strategic import of climate change, answers either question in the affirmative, will it be sending a signal that will disadvantage those tenure candidates? In other words, if junior tenure-track faculty seek to adapt to the modified incentive structure in this forward-looking university, and nonetheless fail to gain tenure there, will they still have a chance at other institutions that have not similarly adapted their evaluative model?

Any university president, provost or university committee that unilaterally tinkers with the incentive structure that cascades down to influence behavior throughout their institution must be cautious about the potential career harms that could be done, or ultimately the risks to the institution as a whole if it populates its faculty with a breed not held in high esteem elsewhere in academia. These are complicated questions that cannot be easily answered. But they deserve to be asked, today more than ever, given the societal stakes on science-driven issues like climate change. Moreover, the deliberations, once underway, should include not just those inside academia, but those who fund academia, those who provide students and tuition to academia, governments who subsidize academia, and representatives of the broader society that is deeply affected by what transpires there.

Journalists, for their part, are unlikely to see the climate change story as their ticket to career advancement. Ambitious journalists will readily admit that they wake up in the morning aiming to get onto the front page. What gets them there? Wars, the White House, fires, abductions, scandals, malfeasance, exposure of villains, and controversy more generally. Not climate change, except in its most controversial or most politicized moments. So the most talented journalists tend to gravitate to other beats, often the political beat since it tends to breed future editors. There are, of course, exceptions — including some whose internal compass tells them that this story simply needs to be written about and others who recognize that the issue may mature to the point when it will get the prominent coverage it warrants and they’ll be well- positioned to supply it by having started early.

Meanwhile, it is news editors — not the laws of nature — who determine day-in and day-out what goes on the front page (albeit constrained, over time, by market pressures from readers and advertisers). Persuading editors that climate change is an important topic worthy of recurring front-page space may well be feasible if a good case can be made, and delivered by the "messengers" most credible to them. In this spirit, the Conference recommended an initiative to foster a series of visits and conferences whereby respected journalists and editors informed on climate change can speak to their peer editors, whom the Conference participants referred to as "gatekeepers," indicating their control over many of the on-the-ground incentives operating in the news media profession (Recommendation #7).

Entreaties from top scientists associated with the proposed bridging institution (Recommendation #1) — while lacking this peer-to-peer element — could also be influential in securing more news coverage and editorial attention if they succeed in obtaining audiences with key editorial page editors, managing editors, TV producers, media owners, columnists, commentators, and anchors, and briefing them on the stakes.