Monday, June 26, 2017

Five Tips for Scientists and Science Writers to Connect with Audiences

by Steve Elliott
Western Integrated Pest Management Center

Words are good. Words work.

I was reminded of that at a recent conference for land-grant university communicators and the thought struck me because very few of the sessions actually focused on writing.

Instead, there were sessions on video and social media, web design and audience farming. The undercurrent throughout the program was that people don’t read and we have to use new ways to communicate with them.

There’s some truth in that but it’s a broad oversimplification. The fact is, people do read and a written report, story or bulletin can be the best way to communicate our information. If we’re failing to connect through those media, it’s not our audiences’ fault.

It may be our writing.

Too often, what comes out of our universities, our organizations and even our own keyboards is jargon-filled, exclusionary and inaccessible – even though we don’t mean it to be. We get busy, perhaps a little lazy, and write something like, “At the joint NIPMCC/FIPMCC meeting, the SIPMC director discussed how PMSPs could be used by EPA and OPMP, USDA NIFA, and/or by IR-4 to determine IPM-fit criteria.”

That’s an extreme (and thankfully made up) example, but it happens and it happens because there’s a percentage of people reading this who can make perfect sense of that sentence. The problem is that anyone who understands it is already in our choir, and everyone else feels we’re not talking to them.

And we want to talk to them. We want to introduce them to integrated pest management and have them join the conversation and our congregation. We want to connect, and we can. And it’s not even that hard.

Here are five simple steps every one of us can take.

1.     Lose the Acronyms
Heresy, I know! I mean, who wants to type out National Integrated Pest Management Coordinating Committee. Every. Single. Time.  But acronyms are confusing and exclusionary, they really are. Even IPM.

But everyone knows what IPM is, right? Really? Does your neighbor? Does your senator? Do they know we mean integrated pest management, or do they think we’re referring to intellectual property management, integrated process management, independence physician management or the International Partnership for Microbiocides? They all use IPM, too.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to fall into the alphabet soup of acronyms. They’re like the secret clubhouse password we knew as kids that show we’re in the group. But unfortunately, they have the exact same effect of keeping other people out. We can’t connect if we’re excluding and confusing people, even unintentionally.

So try this:
·      Instead of acronyms, use words. Use names. On second references, use shortened versions of the names. The National Integrated Pest Management Coordinating Committee is just the coordinating committee or even just the committee after the first reference. 
·      If you must use an acronym, like IPM after you’ve spelled it out once, don’t use more than one per sentence.
·      Don’t create new acronyms, however well intentioned. Acronyms are like atmospheric carbon – there are enough out there already and adding more just hastens our demise.

It’s harder to write without acronyms, but readers will absolutely thank you. (Actually they won’t, but they will keeping reading your report and that’s what matters.) It’s worth the effort. Promise.

2.     Latin is Dead
I know Latin is the language of science, so if you’re writing for a peer-reviewed journal of course you’ll follow its conventions recognizing that it has a specialist audience.

But for any other publication, report or communication, at the very least ask yourself if Latin names are really necessary for your intended audience or if common names will do. If it’s important to include a Latin species name for accuracy or clarity or educational purposes, then absolutely use it. But if it’s not, leave it out. Generally, the public has less need of Latin than folks at universities believe.

One thing that’s never necessary? Latin abbreviations, e.g. e.g. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) The Latin abbreviation e.g. stands for exempli gratia and means “for example.” But most people don’t know that, so a better way to say for example are the actual English words “for example.” Or “such as.” And instead of i.e., which stands for id est and means “in other words,” simply use “in other words” or just a comma and the definition you want to include.

3.     Sentences Aren’t Tables
In tabular data, use as many abbreviations and slashes and notations as you need, but in sentences use words. Pounds per square acre, not lb/ac2.

4.     Punctuate Simply, Capitalize Rarely
We write to help readers, and punctuation is designed to help readers, so let it work for you. And simple works. Commas and periods cover most situations. I write a lot and use a semicolon about once every six months. Other bits of punctuation that are handy are the en dash – a great way to set off a simple explanation – and the occasional parenthesis (which is similar but diminishes what’s inside it.)

Beyond that, punctuation gets in your way. Slashes should only be in web addresses and it’s never necessary to write and/or any other this/that construction.

As far as capital letters, only use them for the names of people and the official names of official things. Concepts don’t get capitalized.

5.     Write Like You Speak
Why do people like videos? Because in video, we use spoken language and it’s easier to understand.

So write like that. If a project report asks for a non-technical summary, describe your project on paper the exact same way you’d describe it to a neighbor. Write it like you’d say it if someone was making a video about your research. Write a pest bulletin the way you’d explain it to a grower in person.

All these tips are just specific ways to make our writing more conversational and accessible, and accessible is everything. We work hard to promote integrated pest management. We want people to engage with our programs. We want growers and pest managers to use our bulletins. We want regulators to understand our issues, and legislators to value our contributions. And we get there if we’re communicating clearly.

So use your words. Words are good.

Words work.

Monday, February 27, 2017

IPM Is About to Become More Vital than Ever

by Steve Elliott and Amanda Crump

Over the past year or so, the national IPM community has been coalescing around the idea of seeking $50 million in additional funding for integrated pest management in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The one problem with that big ask is that we didn’t really have a strong answer for why IPM needs the extra money now. “Making up for past cuts,” "rising costs" and “to meet unmet needs” – while true – aren’t winning arguments.

However, there is a clear and compelling need for expanded IPM efforts and funding.

On January 30, President Trump signed an executive order on reducing regulation and controlling regulatory costs. The order instructs federal agencies to identify two existing regulations to repeal for every new regulation proposed, and to offset costs of new regulations by reducing the costs to comply with existing regulations. The United States has entered a new era of reduced federal regulation.

It’s impossible to know exactly what shape this regulatory reform will ultimately take, or what rules the federal government, pesticide manufacturers, farmers, ranchers and pest managers in schools, housing and other systems will be working under.

Whatever those rules will be, we are convinced that integrated pest management will be more important than ever for America’s pest managers.

The IPM community has a critical role to play in the months and years ahead. Here’s why:

Many people believe that government regulations – especially federal regulations – aren’t necessary for people to act responsibly, and that when regulation is necessary it should be enacted at the state or local level.

The growers and pest managers we’ve met around the West provide good evidence for the argument. The vast majority of growers recognize their farms are part of a larger environmental system and want to be good stewards of the land and good neighbors. The vast majority of schools want to manage pests effectively and protect their students from both pests and pesticide risks.

IPM gives them the knowledge and tools to do that. It gives them a process and a structure for thinking through pest-management decisions.

With regulation, decisions are easy. If it’s banned, you don’t use it. If it’s restricted, you use it within whatever parameters are allowed. Regulation can become a substitute for informed decision-making, a crutch pest managers can rely on. With strong regulations in place, you can honestly say that you acted responsibly because you followed the label.

But if regulations are significantly dialed back as the executive order calls for, it will fall to America’s farmers and pest managers to make responsible pest-management decisions on their own. They will no longer be able to assume that what’s legal and what’s responsible are the same thing.

IPM gives people the framework to make informed decisions, guiding them through a thoughtful approach that manages pests and risks. IPM gives growers and natural resource managers a way to know – and to show – they continue to be good stewards of the land and good neighbors. IPM gives community pest-management specialists confidence that they’ve made the best decision possible as they control pests in habitats that are difficult to manage.   

There is danger for growers, the agriculture industry and others in deregulation. If individuals and industries don’t act responsibly, they will be blamed by the public. If pesticide use goes up significantly, or pesticide residue levels on produce rise suddenly, growers will be held responsible. If rivers and wells that had tested clean test dirty or there’s other significant negative environmental impacts, the ag industry will suffer. Brands could face boycotts and public distrust of commercial agriculture and the crop-protection industry could rise to economically critical levels.

No one wants that.

If regulations aren’t available to serve as a de facto decision-making tool for pest managers, we must give them another tool or we’re setting them up to fail. Integrated pest management is that tool. It’s the way growers and other pest managers can protect themselves, protect America’s environment and protect the reduced regulatory concept. It’s the way that we can continue to keep the West, and America, a healthy and economically sustainable place to live and work.

Our jobs, as IPM researchers and educators and practitioners, just got a lot more vital.

And that means that we have to find and devote resources to developing IPM tools that work on a regional level. It means that we have to work together to change the conversation – to stop working within the silos of our disciplines and collaboratively develop approaches that make sense for pest managers. It means that we have to continue to support growers, natural resource managers and community pest managers with effective and creative solutions to their problems.

It’s going to take all of us, and it’s going to take resources. Why does IPM need an additional $50 million from American taxpayers? Because America is going to need IPM now more than ever.