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From ‘Planet Under Pressure’ conference: Can social media influence policymaking decisions?

By: Chris Cutter

There was a spirited debate here at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London on the possible uses of social media. The session, moderated by BBC journalist Richard Black, provided plenty to think about concerning the utility of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Held in London during 25-29 March 2012, Planet Under Pressure is a conference dedicated to using science to better influence policymaking decisions. The conference is attended by government officials, scientists, researchers, academics, and NGOs who are all looking to social media as a tool to better advance the shared goal of creating a more sustainable future.

Recently, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in the New Yorker that provided a context for this growing debate www.newyorker.com. Gladwell’s argument was that social media provide excellent tools for organizing and communicating but their use takes the personal courage of individuals who are willing to risk harm or even death to stand up against injustice. As an example he cited the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s and pointed out that although social media had its coming out party during the Arab Spring, it still took countless acts of physical bravery to affect the remarkable changes that transpired across the Middle East.

Just as Gladwell’s article sparked a debate across the Internet, the session hosted by Mr. Black brought forth several points of view. Mr. Black pointed out that traditional styles of communication have not enabled science to inform public policy and, therefore, social media offer new opportunities. He also noted the concern that social media may be dangerous to the scientific community, eventually becoming a tool for scientists to expend a tremendous amount of energy to talk to themselves.

On one side of the debate was New York Times journalist Andrew Revkin, who pointed out that debates over difficult issues such as climate change are not simply arguments of fact but there are Nobel Laureates who disagree on fundamental issues related to climate change. Social science shows us clearly that even if the facts were laid out, unadorned and accepted by the public, there would still be tremendous disagreement. Revkin, however, was optimistic about the future of social media. He noted that we are in a time where the ways in which we have traditionally communicated are unraveling and re-raveling in new ways. We are in flux and should expect confusion and disagreement. We are all still figuring it out. Uncertainty should not be taken as failure. Revkin used the analogy of a pen pal, referring to the letters many of us traded as children with peers around the world. Social media are now enabling those same connections continually, daily, and serendipitously. People are using social media platforms to connect to each other and solve problems.

An alternative point of view was articulated by Amy Luers of the Skoll Global Threats Fund. Luers pointed out challenges that social media present to the scientific community. She noted that the scientific community is largely a closed community requiring a PhD for entry, and that most scientific journals are closed to the general public (or costly) in ways that other periodicals are not. Finally, she pointed out that articles that run in scientific journals are peer reviewed — essentially signed off by colleagues — rather than consensus driven. All of these factors reinforce the closed nature of the scientific community. Luers pointed out additional statistics concerning scientists in the United States, such as the fact that only 20% of Americans know a scientist and most scientists live clustered in college towns.

Likewise, scientists have not adopted social media at the same pace as the rest of society. For instance only 15% of scientists use LinkedIn compared to 85% of the general population. Luers, however, was not a pessimist. Despite making a convincing argument that the scientific community is a closed society of sorts and that social media may in fact, as Mr. Black pointed out, result in scientists talking to themselves, there are other trends that can be leveraged to open and extend the scientific community into the general public. One such trend is the growing number of citizen scientists who are increasingly doing field research and providing this information in an open source form for the web. Bird watching is one such example. Luers also noted that the more scientists can extend their networking to these kinds of bridging communities and boundary organizations, the better the likelihood that the very important work being done by scientists all over the world can contribute to the conversation regarding the problems we face as global citizens.