On Monday November 30th the Bedrosian Center held their last Lunch with a Leader of the semester with seismology expert Dr. Lucy Jones. Dr. Jones has worked with the US Geological Survey for over 30 years. More recently she started a collaboration with Mayor Garcetti and the City of LA, first in the development of the ShakeOut Scenario and drill (46 million people participated in last year) and more recently in adopting new policies for the resiliency of buildings and infrastructure.
The conversation that unfolded last Monday covered many topics related to earthquakes and emergency management in California and LA; even a brief discussion of the Hollywood film San Andreas. Some of the recurring topics were related to the intersection of technical science and policy, and the importance of communicating science to the broader public.
Here are some of the lessons that Dr. Jones shared with us having worked at the intersection of science, policy, and the media for many years:
The importance of framing messages
Dr. Jones shared with us an anecdote of the Sierra Madre earthquake in 1991. Towards the end of a long press conference on the earthquake, a reporter asked her whether the eruption of a volcano in the Philippines three weeks prior was related to this earthquake, to which she replied that it wasn’t. A 5.8 earthquake like the one Sierra Madre had experienced happens twice a week somewhere in the world. The reporter insisted that for an earthquake of this magnitude, it must have been correlated, at which point she told him: “You have to understand, on a global scale this was a puny earthquake”.
Her calling it a “puny earthquake” quickly became a popular sound bite and was all over the news, with people suggesting she was belittling the suffering of the people affected. The “on a global scale” qualifier had been all but dropped from her statement at the end of the day. This experience taught her an important lesson of staying calm and being very careful with her words when it comes to the media. “Now I go into a press conference reminding myself about puny earthquakes”, she said.
Informing the public as a scientist
She also shared an interesting perspective on how scientists usually express themselves in the media after an earthquake and why it is problematic. For a scientist, it is the uncertain that is most interesting so that is usually what they will focus on. However, when it comes to the public, highlighting the uncertainties can bring about fear and do more harm than good. She said:
“We’re conveying the message that most of the earthquake is not understood, when in fact almost everything that happens is “Duh! Told ya so!”. But it is not interesting to us [scientists] so we don’t talk about it. And I think it gives a very wrong public message, it increases the uncertainty which increases fear.”
Often reporters ask scientists “What you have learned from this earthquake?” because it is a good way to get the scientist talking. However, it prompts them to talk about the things that they don’t know about earthquakes that were highlighted by the occurrence of the present earthquake. That is what they find most interesting.
“That’s something that I have changed: when I talk after an earthquake I focus on the messages I want to make sure people get. So when asked ‘What did you learn from this earthquake?’ I say, the reality of it is most of this is stuff we understood. It proved that we were right about the problems with these types of buildings, and see? They fell”.
She said she’s learned “to answer the question they should have asked” instead. “To try to go into this with an idea that I have a message to get out, and I should use the opportunity to promote preparedness, those are not things a scientist usually thinks about when we answer questions from the press”.
Policy and science intersect
Dr. Jones also highlighted her desire to promote science and research educating the public and decision-making. What is the point of having the science and the research if it is not going to be used? That desire influenced her decision to have a more significant role in policy for emergency preparedness and to put herself more in the public eye. She found herself at a point in her career where she felt that she would have more impact by becoming involved with the policies and the public awareness related to catastrophic events than she would by strictly doing more research on it.
“I thought, I have 15 years left on my academic career. I’ll write 30 papers, five that will be read, two that will matter. I could think of younger students who would write those two papers if I didn’t. I thought, I want to get this [science] used and if I didn’t do this, nobody else would.”
However, she clarified that while her main goal was to get research and science used for decision-making, scientists should not be the decision makers. On her collaboration with Mayor Garcetti she said that her role was making sure that he understood the implications of his decisions, but ultimately the decisions were his to make. That was an important boundary to be aware of as making policy decisions are not only about what the science tells you.
Furthermore, she said policymakers need to be better prepared to read and interpret science papers and make their own judgments, rather than have to rely on scientists to “tell them what to think”. For example, with climate change “there is enough information that an educated person with no technical training should be able to figure out for themselves what to think about climate change”. However, Jones also acknowledged that academics need to do a better job of making the information more accessible to all, especially to decision makers that do not have technical training.
Dr. Jones credited collaboration as a big component in her successes. For example, for her work with the City of LA, she highlighted the fact that she worked with a diverse team who had different skills and expertise: “We had four person executive committee of basically a politician, a marketer, and educator, and a scientist. And it was a team effort, between all of us”.
She also pointed out that they were successful in getting buy-in from stakeholders because they engaged them in conversations and negotiations when developing policies. She saw her role in these policy making efforts as: “I’m not going to say I have the answer for you. I have the science for you. I can tell you what will happen, but not what you have to do about it. Here is what is going to happen. What do you think we should do about it? So I would come in not trying to be THE expert, rather trying to collaborate.”
It is appropriate that these themes of science, and policy, and communication came up a lot during the conversation. As our director Raphael Bostic pointed out when closing the event, it is precisely Dr. Jones’ ability to express complex scientific matters in accessible and approachable ways that have led her to be so effective in her public role. She describes things simply and without hesitation, so that people really listen but not so that they panic. And when we listen to what Dr. Jones says will happen, we can have a clear starting point for looking at policy solutions that prevent as much damage as possible.