Julian Reyes is currently a post-doctoral fellow and research hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southwest Climate Hub. He is an interdisciplinary agricultural data scientist focusing on weather and climate impacts on risk management. Julian received his PhD in civil engineering from Washington State University in 2018. He was a Science Policy Fellow at the U.S. Global Change Research Program (2014) and Fulbright Research Scholar in Germany (2011). The following is his own views and opinions, and does not represent the view or opinions of his employer.
Science Network Spotlight: Julian Reyes
Julia Worcester: When did you become interested in science communication and advocacy?
Julian Reyes: I finished my BS in Civil Engineering in 2010, shortly after the economic recession. I didn’t have promising job opportunities, and many people were pursuing graduate school as a safeguard. At the time I didn’t know what a PhD entailed; I thought the only option post-PhD was to become a professor in the ‘ivory tower.’ I was involved in an interdisciplinary program through the National Science Foundation, the National Research Training Program, which provides graduate students the opportunity to broaden their interests. I took classes in engineering as well as ecosystem ecology and atmospheric science, providing a diverse perspective on various aspects of climate science and climate change. It also showed me there are opportunities for PhDs outside academia; I saw people working in science policy, in federal government research labs, and at NGOs and advocacy groups.
Importantly, during my graduate program I learned to answer the “so what?” of my research. Many students are focused on their research question, but it’s just as important to ask: “What is the relevance of this research?” By asking that question I was able to explain my research to people from different disciplines and the general public because I understood how the research is relevant to society. During my graduate studies I was also a Science Policy Fellow at the U.S. Global Change Research Program, spending three months in DC and learning how science is (or is not) used in decision-making.
JW: How does your background shape your current research and the values you bring to it, specifically the importance of bringing community perspectives and stakeholders into the research process?
JR: Throughout my undergraduate and graduate education and training, I was extremely fortunate to have had scholarships and fellowships that left me with no debt. As a first generation college graduate (and first PhD on both sides of my family), I couldn't have accomplished and achieved what I have without mentors and financial aid from state and federal governments. There is a role for government in not only funding societally-relevant research, but supporting talented students to finish their degrees. I see myself as a scientist giving back to the institution that had supported me for so long. I also see my role as sharing science with the general public so they understand the role of science, and specifically federally-funded science in their everyday lives.
My current research takes crop insurance data on a site and brings them to life. The purpose is to visualize how these data represent damage amounts due to particular weather events. Let’s say I’m a farmer and I grow corn, and there’s a hail event during which I lose 50 percent of my crops. We can extract these data by different types of loss (rain, drought, etc.) and by different crop type (corn, wheat, etc.). If we have a long time series we can ask interesting questions, such as whether it’s climate-related. Are there more crop losses due to drought over time in a particular area?
We’ve given life to these crop insurance data. They were Excel files, but we provided a cool data visualization format where folks click on their county and are able to visualize time series, or download data for the county or type of loss. That is part of making data, science, and research more accessible, discoverable, and usable. Those are the values I bring – accessibility, understandability, but also usability of data. There is a difference between the words useful and useable. The data could be useful on a website, but are they useable? Not really, unless you have a powerful computer to download gigabytes of data and then use Excel to sort through it. I’m the middle man in moving the data from useful to useable so people can take what they need and use it to make better decisions on the ground for what and when they’re planting. Scientists can use those data to explore the climate change impacts on a particular crop by using the crop loss data. Sometimes we do work directly with farmers, ranchers, and other producers, and we also try to support those who can help farmers and ranchers.
In terms of incorporating various stakeholders and community perspectives, we found there was a need for the project because people were asking how they could download these data. We want it to be dynamic over time, not static. We have been asking stakeholders what they want from these data and how they plan to use them, and have found that people like that they’re able to download the data in an accessible format based on their interests. People say it’s a useful tool and use it in presentations. We eventually want to show the impacts of weather and climate on agricultural production using dollar values.
This tool also helps educate people on the fact that we have a federal crop insurance program. Being able to explain the data and the existence of the program is already a positive outcome. It’s important to show what taxpayer money goes to, and that there are weather and climate impacts on agricultural production which have dollar values associated with it. In times of great losses, like Hurricane Harvey, the government is essentially on the hook for those losses because they re-insure private insurance companies. This project has been eye-opening in terms of educating folks around, 1) the basics of the federal crop insurance program, 2) these data are here for you to use and they’re free, and 3) you should educate yourself around these programs because this is your taxpayer money.
JW: How much buy-in do you have from fellow scientist colleagues to involve different stakeholders? Do people generally understand the importance of this?
JR: That’s a great question. We have ultimate stakeholders – farmers, ranchers, the general public, scientists – but also funding stakeholders and bosses. Most of the time our "bosses" see the value in providing these data to our ultimate stakeholders.
I appreciate the importance of providing data to others, but ultimately it’s not how I am reviewed for my job. I am a federal scientist, so I am still annually judged on number of publications, not necessarily how many stakeholders I’ve reached. There’s a disconnect between what I do and how I’m reviewed. There's a balancing act between what you do for others versus what you do for the job to keep it or make certain people happy.
JW: Absolutely. That gets at the issue of outreach and advocacy not being formally incentivized in STEM.
JR: It’s not, you’re right. We have three functional areas at the program: 1) research synthesis and science translation; 2) tool development; 3) stakeholder outreach and education. My project, providing crop loss data in a more accessible format, falls within those three functional areas. I am only judged on the first functional area, not necessarily on how many people went to our website to download the data, or how many people used the data, or how many people presented on it. But we carved out enough time to ensure we could do the work in all three functional areas, because it does matter that we do them all. We juggle different tasks for different stakeholders.
JW: How can scientists and technical experts use their training and critical analysis skills for political advocacy?
JR: It’s important to use your training and background to ensure you have a seat at the decision-making table. Many PhDs don’t know that there exist so many opportunities outside academia for them to really hone their science communication skills, embed themselves in science policy, and/or understand how science can benefit society (outside the research lab/university). The AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship is a great program that embeds scientists and engineers in federal agencies and offices to learn how science is used in decision-making processes, but also offer their skills and knowledge to inform programs and policies.
It could look like serving as a witness at the state level and talking to the legislature about a topic on which you are the expert. It’s essential to realize you should use your expertise for the public good and that can be done outside the university.
Having a seat at the decision-making table doesn’t mean they will take into account your science, but at least you’re at the table. Scientists, engineers, and technical experts (I think a lot of people are experts) have the skills to assess tradeoffs between decisions and produce a fact-based report of the outcomes of those decisions. You can use your expertise and degree for leverage because you the expert.
In terms of political advocacy, scientists should use what they know to ensure science continues to be fact-based and that there is adequate funding for research. If your member of Congress wants to take away money from the NSF, you should email or call your Congress Member to discuss how NSF has been valuable and the impact of that research on your community.
JW: The very presence of scientists in the federal government is a statement, especially given the chilling effects of many of the official and unofficial Trump administration policies.
JR: Absolutely. I think many federal scientists may not quite be an ‘advocate,’ but recognize they must explain the importance of their work. During this administration, scientists are becoming more active in advocating for science in general, and many have learned to package what they’ve done to different audiences showing the value and usefulness of their work. We are learning to be more active in different decision-making spheres so that science has a role, and decision makers are more knowledgeable about the role of science in everyday life.
JW: How can science be used for public good and collective action?
JR: There is a way to do research that advances the scientific enterprise while also being useful and usable by society (i.e., use-inspired basic research). I think scientists should always be able to answer the "so what?" of work demonstrating either a societal benefit or importance to the general public. By doing so, science can be used to move society forward and be more "actionable" given critical societal issues.
Working with farmers, ranchers, and cooperative extension agents over the past three years has provided me with valuable perspectives on the role of science for communities and public good. First and foremost, scientists need to listen to the needs of communities if they want their work to be useful. Second, we have to make sure communities are at the decision-making table, and also not expect them to come to our table. When scientists embed themselves in communities, they see what is actually happening including possible social inequities and research constraints. Scientific research need not only lead to outputs like journal articles, but also positive outcomes that may actually improve the lives of people. In my current work, data analysis and synthesis serves to move the science forward, but also provide our stakeholders with data-driven risk management tools. If we think of science outside the realm of academic publishing, we can co-develop tools and effectively share our work with communities so that science is used for public good.