URI’s Metcalf Institute secures $1.7 million grant to create the SciComm Identities Project

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The University of Rhode Island's Metcalf Institute was recently awarded a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create the SciComm Identities Project (SCIP), a fellowship designed to train and support science communicators from marginalized communities in environmental science.

The Metcalf Institute received the grant in collaboration with Dr. Bruno Takahashi, research director of Michigan State University's Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, who received an additional $1.1 million grant, bringing the total award to $2.8 million toward training future science communicators.

The funding supports a five-year initiative to create a fellowship program for tenure-track faculty members from all over the country. The program will have a total of three year-long cohorts, bringing in 20 science communicators each year, starting in January 2023. Each cohort will focus on a different environmental issue related to climate change. The first will center on energy, followed by water, and then agriculture and food security.

The curriculum for the project will be developed during the first year of the grant. Researchers at the Metcalf Institute and Knight Center are collecting data to inform the fellowship program. Dr. Takahashi's team will lead this formative stage of the project, conducting interviews with science faculty from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds to understand how their identities inform their approaches to science and communication.

Dr. Sunshine Menezes, executive director of the Metcalf Institute, said the idea for the project came out of the Inclusive SciComm Symposium, which the Metcalf Institute launched in 2018. Menezes and her colleagues realized that despite conversations in the field about increasing diversity and inclusion, science communication conferences were still not addressing it as an important topic. The Inclusive SciComm Symposium was designed to bring together science communication practitioners and researchers who prioritize inclusivity, equity, and intersectionality for shared learning and networking opportunities.

Metcalf Institute, the Knight Center, and the URI Science & Story Lab created the SciComm Identities Project fellowship to test new, more inclusive models for science communication training after seeing the success of the Inclusive SciComm Symposium and the potential for applying intercultural communication theory to science communication training--an approach that has not been pursued before.

We want to talk about how a person's identities inform their science communication, and how their science communication training experiences could be more effective in the long run if training centered their experiences and identities within and outside of the academy, rather than assuming all science communicators share the same motivations and experiences."

Dr. Sunshine Menezes, executive director, Metcalf Institute

Next January, the program will kick off with an in-person, week-long gathering of the 20 fellows in the cohort. In the following months, the group will meet frequently online and will gather again in-person for a week over the summer at Michigan State.

The fellows will be tasked with contributing to a new podcast during their time in the cohort. Jason Jaacks, assistant professor of multimedia journalism at URI, will serve as executive producer of the podcast, training the fellows in the storytelling and technical aspects of creating a podcast and working with them to refine their methods.

"The goal in my role is to help the fellows become better acquainted with the skills and approaches to communicate their own science, in hopes of creating these cohorts of media literate scientists who are able to take those science communication skills into their own practice, and then into their own research communities to support a more diverse suite of science communicators," Jaacks said.

Another unique aspect of the project is the team's aim to develop a peer-review process for the podcast, similar to the process for a typical research paper. This will help the fellows get scholarly recognition for their science communication activities, while still effectively communicating science with a wider public audience.

Dr. Evelyn Valdez-Ward, a URI postdoctoral fellow on the NSF grant, is working with both the Metcalf Institute and the Knight Center on the project and is leading efforts to evaluate the project overall and the SCIP fellowship.

Valdez-Ward got involved in the project after she developed her own non-profit centered around combining social justice and STEM, the ReclaimingSTEM Institute. Valdez-Ward said one of the challenges in science communication training is the lack of consensus on methods. Despite the increasing importance of science communication throughout the world, there are no guidelines to evaluate the effectiveness or approach of training programs. Part of her job is to consider how the project will measure the success of the fellowship training curriculum and, specifically, whether integrating aspects of intercultural communication (like identity negotiation in academia) within the SCIP training makes a difference in science communication practices of the participating fellows.

"Looking at the diversity, equity and inclusion aspect of science communication, it's clear it's starting to become a growing movement and a growing field," Valdez-Ward said. "There's a lot of communication training programs that aren't really addressing the needs of participants from marginalized backgrounds, and so another aspect of our curriculum is to look at how we can develop this in a way that does address those needs."

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