How to Improve the Communication of Research: Lessons from Forestry and Wood Bioenergy

In 2012, the Forest History Society published Wood for Bioenergy: Forests as a Resource for Biomass and Biofuels,” a book I co-authored with Amanda Lang. It serves as a primer on the markets, policies and technologies associated with wood pellets, liquid fuels and wood-based electricity and power. In 2021, the Lynn W. Day Endowment sponsored my lecture that revisited our assumptions on wood bioenergy ten years ago – and other forestry-related topics – and how they played out over time (click here to view a replay of the lecture).

Over time, we learned lessons from (1) our own research and (2) the way reporters and the media covered research. We observed how researchers and reporters, while typically operating in good faith to do the best job they can, end up failing to communicate core finding or insights accessibly or accurately. For example, when the Forest History Society commissioned us to author Wood for Bioenergy, the copyeditors recommended, on multiple occasions, that we simplify concepts for the target audience. Generally speaking, we tended to be too “technical” and needed to boil down key findings with context.

Common Errors

Articles in newspapers, on the other hand, tended to suffer from different issues. In 2014, I published an article on this topic in BioResources (“Learning from mistakes in the media to improve the communication of wood bioenergy research”). The article focused on three common errors in reporting on wood bioenergy and forestry that offer guidance for the coverage of research and technical analysis:

  1. Failure to provide context, which rarely requires exhaustive research or supplementary analysis. Help readers and policymakers get a relative sense for the magnitude of a problem. 
  2. Improperly assigning “causal” relationships. For example, does it only rain when the Red Sox win, or are other factors involved?
  3. Errors of fact. Double check the basic facts. One faulty assertion casts doubt on the broader work and body of research, which can undermine the careers and efforts of entire research teams.

Conclusion

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, limit our influence. Success and relevance to decisionmakers depends on our ability to communicate what we know to others.

Ground Rules for Productive Meetings

This post introduces an essay on leading and facilitating effective teamwork and meetings

Meetings fail for three primary reasons. One, the purpose was unclear. Two, meetings fail because they are poorly planned. Three, meetings fail because they are poorly run. They start and end late, or agenda integrity was not maintained.  At the end of the meeting, nothing was decided, and no one was better off.  Neutral facilitation and value-based ground rules can help teams use an effective process during meetings to discuss its issues. 

Click here to read the essay.

Tough Trees and Growth Rings

The late Dr. Alex Shigo, author of accessible books on trees and former Chief Scientist of the U.S. Forest Service, described trees thusly:

“Trees are superior survival organisms. They live longer, grow taller, and become more massive than any organism ever to inhabit earth.” 

Dr. Alex Shigo

In short, trees are tough. Street life for a tree involves air pollution, yard sale signs, climbing kids, tire swings, knife carvings and car accidents. In the woods, trees endure drought, floods, fires, deer stands and enumerable pathogens. Regardless their environment, trees document their travails in their annual growth rings. These concentric increments, made of light and dark cells, indicate the amount of wood added in one season.  

The mechanics of trees, so orderly and resilient, fascinate. Let’s take a moment to peel back the bark and appreciate what comprises a tree and its growth rings:

  • Bark: this outer layer protects the tree from extreme temperatures, certain bugs and diseases, and even fire.
  • Phloem: also called the “inner bark,” the phloem transports sap produced in the leaves down and throughout the tree. Compare this role to that of the sapwood (xylem).
  • Cambium: amazing layer of thin cells that produces inner bark (phloem) on one side and sapwood (xylem) on the other.
  • Xylem: sapwood conducts water and necessary nutrients up the tree, versus the phloem which transports ready sap down the tree. When looking at the cross-section of a tree, the relatively youthful sapwood is lighter, partly because it has more water than the…
  • Heartwood in the middle of the stem, which is comprised of older, inactive cells that provide structural strength. 
  • Pith: central core of the tree and in twigs.

In most of North America, the growing season for trees starts in the spring when the cambium produces larger cells with thin walls that form lighter-colored “springwood” or earlywood. Growth slows later in the summer when trees produce the smaller and thicker walled cells that for the “summerwood” or latewood that is the darker part of each annual growth ring. 

How to Read the News and Articles

When reading anything, we want to prepare our mind. Mindless reading is like mindless eating. Be intentional and discerning in reading and application. Consider this simple approach for assessing the quality, credibility and relevance of what we read: ScanRead and Relate.

  • Before reading, scan the article or white paper to check its title, source, date, author name and bio (if there), figures and picture. This gives a sense of the rigor and shape of the article. It also answers, “is this current?”
    • I scan books, journals and magazines, too, and check the table of contents. This gives me a better feel for the material and its potential relevance.
  • While reading, focus on the theme and main ideas. Where does the supporting evidence come from (e.g. data, research, interviews, opinion)? 
  • After reading, relate the “value” in the article to your interests or objectives. Ask, “how is this relevant to me or my firm?” 

We don’t need perfection in our reading. However, we do benefit from intention and discernment. If we’re chilling on the porch with Beaverball or Family Circle, that’s one thing. If we’re reading a national newspaper, a proposal or a white paper, we gain time and advantage with a systematic approach.

Managing Businesses that Rely on Creative Activities

This post introduces an essay with ideas on coordinating different types of work.

Aside from the entrepreneurial artist (e.g. Andy Warhol) or writer (e.g. James Patterson) or inventor (e.g. Dean Kamen), most individuals that live off of their ideas operate within some type of organization. How do we corral “creative” activities like writing and research within manageable businesses?

Click here to read the essay.