Telluride’s Town Talks: A model for scientific discourse

This summer, I ventured into the scientific wilderness to a workshop on theoretical chemistry in Telluride, CO, and I’ve returned with hope for the future of the public scientific discourse in America. While in town, I attended a talk delivered by Sambhav N. Sankar of the Justice Department about the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill; to my surprise, 205 of the town’s 2,300 citizens turned up . Such a large turnout for science education is rarely seen in most communities, even in university towns like Berkeley. I believe that this sort of engagement should be a model for future interactions between the scientific establishment and the public.

Before I describe Mr. Sankar’s eloquent presentation and the town’s response, let me first set the stage by describing the surreality of Telluride: it’s a town that feels orthogonal to normalcy. It began as a silver mining outpost at the end of an aspen-encrusted box canyon in the second half of the 19th century. Presently, much of the environmental destruction wrought by those mining efforts has been mitigated, and there seems to be a strong desire among the residents to protect their gorgeous valley. In contrast with the placid countryside, the main street’s historical architecture had me ready for gunslingers to meet at high noon. And although I swear there must be two bars per block, this is also a town that looks eternally ready for an Independence Day parade to roll down Colorado Ave., with kids and dogs chasing the a fire truck to the tune of a marching band. The town’s self-image is deeply indebted to the region’s hardscrabble, pioneer roots, but the environment and history of the town now exist in an uneasy truce with developers who desire to stud the hillsides with condominiums for the winter ski season.

My own journey to this slightly alternative reality was prompted by a workshop at the Telluride Science Research Center called the Telluride School of Theoretical Chemistry. The scientific content of the presentations was excellent, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit bizarre to spend mornings in intense scientific lectures and afternoons wandering the hiking routes that surround town.

Telluride Town Talk, July 12, 2011:

The most unique part of my experience in Telluride was witnessing the interaction between the school (and the scientists attending it) and the residents of the town. Each week, the Telluride Science Research Center hosts an event that is free and open to the general public called Telluride Town Talks, during which a prominent scientist or science public policy figure gives an hour-long talk and participates in a lengthy question-and answer session. The speaker at the Town Talk I attended was Sambhav N. Sankar, an eloquent and passionate member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. He was also an attorney in the Department of Justice, and his legal background was immediately apparent in his delivery. His presentation covered technical background on deep water drilling before moving to the events leading up to the spill itself. Although he limited his use of technical terminology, Mr. Sankar did not shy away from using and explaining terms that were critical to his audience’s understanding. This clarity, in conjunction with the town’s intense interest in conservation, made for a rapt audience. A moderated question and answer session followed, during which the audience grilled Mr. Sankar to find out his opinions of the crisis and his view on the future of oil drilling and the energy industry.

The Town Talk was an honest attempt at interfacing with the general public on an issue in which science and engineering have significantly impacted the public debate. The reactions were mostly positive, but not universally so. The audience really got into the science, and most people seemed to legitimately learn something new. A few members had even worked on oilrigs themselves and asked about how possible new legislation would affect present and future rig workers. But the room also seemed to prickle with a dose of righteous anger, frustration, and indignation; the audience was far from comfortable with the oil industry as a necessary evil. With the addition of the Fukushima nuclear plant’s troubles fresh in their minds, many at the talk felt that the energy industry as a whole was abusing the implicit trust of the nations who relied upon them to responsibly harness the planet’s resources. Mr. Sankar didn’t try to defend cases of obvious negligence, but nonetheless drew the audience’s attention to the gasoline in their cars and the electricity powering their homes, and the sacrifice necessary to sustain a modern lifestyle. There was a legitimate dialogue on the ways in which science and technology impact the planet’s future.

Here was a case study in the future of the public scientific discourse: a large turnout, from the core of an isolated town in a beautiful area, to learn about science and engineering. The lecture was given in a way that did not condescend and focused on material that could be understood. I want to see a future in which these sorts of events are ubiquitous, and I would love to see Berkeley expand their offerings to the public.

Special thanks to Nana Naisbitt for attendance figures. Image used with permission.

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