A –Streams of Thought– contribution by John Van Stan & Jan Friesen.
Writing my first full science proposal in a new tenure-track position was challenging but, honestly, most sections flowed smoothly from my fingertips. The motivation, background, research approach, hypotheses, methods, and even project and data management plans fit snuggly together beneath the overarching question: Will forests interact differently with rainfall along a natural-to-urban continuum? Then, confidently, I wrote “Broader Impacts” in bold, sipped my single-origin third-wave coffee, and stared blankly at the blinking text cursor. Every other blink interrupted my stream-of-thought until, after mere minutes, the cursor had elevated itself from nuisance to arch-nemesis. It became clear that each blink was a taunt as it shed its disguising vowel for a more rancorous one, becoming the villainous “Curser.” Unluckily, I knew this villain all too well. I also knew that I had to act fast, before the Curser’s mocking winks dissolved my thoughts to mush! With astonishing rapidity, my fingers fluttered out several sentences, forcing the Curser to retreat down the page. There it sat, one line below my newest paragraph, derisively staring at this anemic assembly of platitudinous promises. Like a bot trained by reading innumerable “Broader Impacts” sections, I had spewed out some vanilla text pudding that blandly promised to “present and publish findings,” “integrate work into my courses,” “extend current scientific theory,” and so on …list abbreviated as to not bore the reader any more than was necessary. I locked an unflinchingly open stare with the Curser’s unflinchingly blinking slash. It was clear: The battle for unique broader impacts had begun!
Long story short, I won the battle that day by invoking the outreach power of comics! Once over this hurtle, I easily vanquished the Curser by thrusting it outside of my proposal’s 15-page limit. Broader impacts are clearly an important aspect of water science. As scientific understanding of the water cycle deepens, the knowledge gap between hydrologists and the public may widen. Widening this gap is dangerous for effective water resource management, as the public’s knowledge is key to their engagement in, and support of, conservation efforts (Dean et al., 2016). We, hydrologists, may wonder why the public isn’t keeping up. After all, captivating stories that relate major advances in water science and technology are constantly being published in top-tier journals with international exposure! We even enthusiastically share these scientific stories on social media. Our nuanced technical tales may enthrall the scientific reader with its detailed and repeatable plotline that climaxes with highly contextualized results. Unfortunately, the same scientifically enthralling story may be incomprehensible to the public, or potentially worse, be misunderstood. In this blog post, I describe my journey to discovering research comics and the challenges of integrating this sequential artform into my broader impact activities. Then, I share the story behind a recent science comic, “Urban Forestry – Taming Precipita,” that was developed as an outreach element from a US-NSF Hydrologic Sciences project (1518726).