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Learning to Improve the Communication of Wood Bioenergy Research

This post includes an excerpt from an editorial by Brooks Mendell published in the open access journal BioResources

Wood bioenergy investments—which include projects generating electricity, biofuels, and pellets from woody raw materials—necessitate decisions from a range of stakeholders.  And yet, natural resource professionals, energy firms, and policymakers struggle to make decisions with scattered information about the status of wood bioenergy markets and technologies.  Herein lies the opportunity and need for rigorous, objective and accessibly communicated research. Successful applied research into wood bioenergy, or into fields of any type, requires both meaningful insights to inform decision-makers and effective communication strategies to make those insights accessible.

How grave are deficiencies in the communication of wood bioenergy research?  If judged by a sample of media reports in widely read outlets, the near total absence of peer-reviewed or quantitative research indicates a true failure to communicate between applied researchers and reporters.  The results indicate the drawbridge is up, the phone lines are down and the door is closed.  As a result, the general public’s understanding of wood bioenergy remains incomplete.

When the Forest History Society commissioned Amanda Lang and me to author the brief book Wood for Bioenergy, the explicit purpose was to make available data and applied research accessible to a broader audience.  However, in writing the book, we struggled with our “researchy” tendencies to include extra technical details for the purpose of completeness.  When copyeditors provided feedback, they commonly recommended that we continue to simplify concepts and results.  In short, I recognized that the charge to “clearly communicate research results” is easier said than executed.

At a minimum, we can account for three lapses.  First, provide context to give policymakers a sense, on a relative basis, of the importance of a given issue.  What is the magnitude of a problem?  One of the greatest gifts we provide in research is context and relative importance.  Second, properly distinguish between “causal” relationships and mere happenstance or correlations.   Does it really only rain when Aunt Sally wears her cashmere sweater?  And finally, confirm facts and conclusions. Faulty assertions cast doubts on the broader work and body of research.

Being effective in our fields requires skills beyond the technical.  Technical skills divorced from the ability to communicate that we have these skills, and the insights we generate from applying these skills, may limit our influence on decisions and funding for further research. Rather, success depends on our ability to communicate what we know to others.

The complete text of the editorial is available here (Volume 9, Number 1, pages 1-3). The editorial serves as follow-up to a previous post on media reporting related to wood bioenergy.

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