URI’s Metcalf Institute, elevating the conversation on the environment for 20 years

Program trains journalists, scientists, communicators from around the world

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Tom Kutcher with Metcalf Institute fellows
Tom Kutcher of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey shows Metcalf Institute fellows how a throw trap is used to sample fauna in the coastal wetlands along the breachway in Charlestown, R.I., last month during the institute’s annual immersion workshop for journalists. (URI photo/Gretchen Ertl)

KINGSTON, R.I., July 10, 2018 — It was front page news in 1998 when dozens of nations signed the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That same year, creation of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting garnered far less attention, but 20 years later its impact is greater than ever.

“No one could have predicted that Metcalf’s mission would be even more important now than it was 20 years ago,” said Executive Director Sunshine Menezes, a clinical associate professor in URI’s Department of Natural Resources Science, College of the Environment and Life Sciences, where the institute is based.

The following year the Institute held its first weeklong Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists, aimed at improving reporters’ science literacy and reporting. Since then, more than 225 journalists from across the country and 45 nations have participated, and the institute has become a science communications leader.

Initially, the annual workshop offered up to 20 fellows the chance to dip their toes into a variety of subjects: analyzing water samples, taking part in a fish trawl, using profiling tools to understand the shape-shifting properties of beach erosion.

Metcalf has since refined that approach, limiting enrollment to 10 fellows to enhance opportunities for one-on-one learning and adopting a thematic focus. The 2018 workshop addressed Global Impacts: Climate Change and Extreme Weather in light of last year’s devastating hurricanes. The workshops now begin with Menezes and other URI faculty leading a discussion on the building blocks of scientific knowledge, from understanding the funding and peer review processes to the role of scientific uncertainty.

“Most journalists don’t have a scientific background. This really fundamental information about how science gets done represents the black boxes of understanding. We can then present the workshop’s environmental topics in the context of the scientific process,” she explained.

With up to 150 applicants for 10 spots, choosing fellows can be tough, and Menezes believes the right class makeup is critical. “The group itself is really part of the educational experience. They learn from each other,” she said. Participants represent small and large news outlets, various media platforms, geographical locations, races, ethnicities and gender.

“We hear all the time how the workshop is career changing,” said Menezes. “Afterward, some participants get science degrees, or they change how they approach their reporting. Some become editors and guide environmental coverage, or they write books.”

Journalist Tim McDonnell, who participated in 2013 while a reporter at Mother Jones, can attest to that. The 2017 Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow said he gained greater science literacy, which benefits his reporting on climate change and the environment in the U.S. and Africa. He recalled a session devoted to deconstructing a peer-reviewed scientific journal article. Fellows combed the piece to identify the news lead, interpret data and graphs and determine follow-up questions they would ask the author.

“It was a significant benefit and definitely was important to my understanding scientific methodology and language,” said McDonnell, who has reported for The New York Times, The Guardian and The Atlantic, among others.

The experience also gave him an appreciation for the responsibility entrusted to science writers. “I gained an understanding of the responsibility science journalists have in being sensitive to scientists’ priorities and concerns, how we can bridge the gap,” he said.

“Part of building confidence and trust with your audience is to do this work in a rigorous and thoughtful way.”

This year’s fellows included an environmental editor for a television network in China, a newspaper reporter from Chicago, a news anchor from Kenya and multimedia journalist and URI alumnus, Mark Scialla, ’13.

Scialla, a natural resource economics and journalism major, has worked for Al Jazeera English, The Guardian and PBS NewsHour, and is now a full-time freelancer. “I am learning a lot; the days are packed,” Scialla said, as the group walked a bit awkwardly in hip waders across coastal wetlands in Charlestown. “I will be able to apply what I’ve learned, from how to read scientific journals to understanding how research is funded and finding good sources.”

This sunny June morning, the group was learning how sea level rise inundates coastal salt marshes, drowning grasses that help stabilize sand and stem erosion and altering plant and animal life.

Nearby, Katie Peikes, a science writer with Delaware Public Media, poked a dowel into a sandy plot as part of a marsh vegetation study and identified a type of salt-tolerant marsh grass called Spartina. “I’m learning so much. It is intimidating, but I am just taking it all in,” she said. “I know I’m going to benefit.”

Workshop sessions and the free public lectures that accompany them are held at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, where Metcalf was originally based. The institute also hosts webinars and provides trainings — at journalism and scientific conferences and stand-alone programs — all over the country throughout the year.

As a leader in science communications, the institute has spurred university-wide collaborations that put URI at the forefront of science literacy. For example, Menezes and Deborah Sheely, associate dean of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, co-teach Public Engagement with Science.

Menezes also teaches the new course, Environmental Crisis Communication, and she and colleagues are developing an environmental communications track for the Masters of Environmental Science and Management program. Others across URI are working to build science communication skills, too. Thanks to URI’s SciWrite program, a National Science Foundation-funded project to improve graduate student writing, students can earn a post-graduate certificate in Science Writing and Rhetoric starting this fall.

Metcalf Institute by the Numbers
226, fellows who have attended the immersion workshops
2,158, participants in all programs since 1999, not including public lecture attendees
873, total participants who were journalists
879, participants who were scientists
406, total participants who were other science communicators
232, programs held, including public lectures and workshops
60, science training programs for journalists
44, communications trainings for scientists and other science communicators
128, public programs (lectures or webinars)