an Opportunity to connect
We at the UF IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station just finished up a big week hosting the Big Bend Science Symposium in Cedar Key. This three-day conference was attended by the usual contingent of graduate students, university professors, and state wildlife managers convening to share updates about their research. However, academic and professional attendees were not the only ones soaking up the scientific bounty in the Cedar Key Community Center last week. That’s right – this conference was open to members of the public, especially residents of the Nature Coast and high school students from nearby counties.
Approximately 50 local residents and almost 100 high school students participated in the Symposium this year. Members of the public were especially encouraged to attend the keynote address, featured talks about a local oyster restoration project, and a poster social, though many attended all or most of the program. We believe events where the public can meet scientists and hear about regional research are important opportunities to build trust in science. In addition, they are opportunities to increase public understanding about the natural environment and how we study it.
communication is key
The keynote address at the Big Bend Science Symposium was delivered by FSU Coastal Marine Lab Director Felicia Coleman. She focused on how scientists can best engage in public discourse about issues they study. She gave important tips to the scientists in the audience about communicating effectively. Dr. Coleman described her experience communicating with the public about research on reef fisheries. Dr. Coleman was frank about the fact that communicating about controversial issues can be difficult for scientists, but must be done (and done well) in order to gain public trust. We often hear reports about low levels of trust in science in the US, and some believe trust in science is at an all-time low. Results from national surveys show that only about 40% of US adults have “a great deal of confidence” in science, and this percentage has been holding fairly steady since the 1970s. A new report from the Pew Research Center indicates Americans’ perceptions of science have declined slightly compared to 5 years ago. These trends are troubling and many in the scientific community want to help reverse negative opinions about science. Dr. Coleman’s keynote address offered timely advice to scientists in the audience and resonated well with members of the public.
Despite recent evidence of declining public trust in science, there are bright spots in Florida. This is especially true for issues related to natural resource conservation. Recent research shows that Florida voters are much more likely than voters in other states to vote in favor of conservation-related referenda. In addition, issues of water quality and quantity are consistently rated among the top issues for Floridians. Last year, water was rated as the second most important issue by Floridians, roughly even with healthcare and the economy. At this year’s Symposium, attendees heard plenty about the importance of water. Notably, several talks focused on the importance of adequate fresh water for healthy coasts. These talks highlighted the key role of large oyster reefs as “leaky dams” that hold fresh water next to the Big Bend coast, enhancing estuarine function and ecological resilience. Attendees also heard talks on a wide range of other natural resource topics, including habitat restoration, prescribed fire, landscape conservation efforts, fisheries ecology, seagrasses, salt marshes, and invasive species.
engaging local youth
The Big Bend Science Symposium ended with a special session attended by high school students from the region. Several researchers and managers stayed an extra day to speak to almost 100 students. Speakers focused on how they got started in their careers and described a typical day in the “office”. Students were then able to mingle among scientific posters and speak to different researchers about research going on in the Big Bend. They also enjoyed several different learning booths with live examples of local wildlife and other exhibits. After lunch, students took a walking tour of downtown Cedar Key to learn about living shorelines and see the construction of the new station. We believe that experiences like these are important for making science and scientific careers feel accessible to our local youth. Feedback from teachers has been incredibly positive, and many students are already eager to volunteer for habitat restoration and coastal cleanup efforts.
A Special Thanks to sponsors of the big bend science symposium