The Big Why State: How Science Communication Matters To Montana
These days it seems everybody is talking about the importance of science communication. Here in Montana, we’re joining the chorus for obvious reasons: This is a state where the message resounds in a particularly powerful way.
Our state is highly reliant on tourism—people come here to ski, to hunt, to fly fish, to visit Yellowstone and Glacier National Park and maybe see a grizzly bear (from a distance, hopefully). And it’s not just any kind of tourism—it’s tourism focused on natural beauty and the outdoors. So enter science: It’s the key to preserving these resources upon which the state economy depends.
What that means is that if we can’t get the word out about science to the public—well, that’s just bad for Montana’s future. More public communication efforts about science aren’t just essential to the future well-being of the U.S.—they’re vital to our state.
Consider: A more scientifically literate Montana electorate is crucial to informed policy-making regarding science-related issues like river preservation and endangered species protection. For just one example, think about the fate of the cutthroat trout, the charismatic and famed fish species beloved by fly fishermen and memorialized in movies like A River Runs Through It. For instance, rural and urban residents who have a major impact on our rivers—and what gets into them, and how much water they take out from them—need to be better informed about the impact of their actions on the health of the wild trout fisheries. Whether or not they are so informed dramatically influences our state economy, because a large part of it comes from tourism and recreation related to fishing.
As cases like this show, our legislators and leaders must understand the near- and long-term value of scientific research to justify continued and increased public funding for science. And we’ve got to tell it to them. Our message is clear: Conservation benefits our state’s economy. It ought to be obvious: 9 million visitors come to Montana each year; that’s 10 visitors for each resident. That creates 37,000 jobs, second only to agriculture in terms of its impact. If our state’s natural beauty slides, then so will this industry.
Finally, science communication helps Montana in another way. The state can only benefit economically from convincing young people to pursue STEM careers, as will occur if they get the message about science’s many payoffs. Luckily, Montana is already ahead of the national curve in 4th and 8th grade national assessment test scores—but the trick is maintaining that leadership by starting early. The experience of Montana Minds—an NSF funded scholarship program based both on merit and need—shows that if you want students to enter into STEM majors and pop out at the other end with science careers, you need to help them along the way by providing support structures–for instance tutoring, or a place where they can go and get their questions answered. That’s the way to ensure a robust scientific pipeline within our state.
Science communication, then, is really central to Montana’s economic and social future. As the Montana-born newscaster Chet Huntley once put it, “Maybe where there is clarity of air there is clarity of thought.” To that we can add: and clarity of message.