Institute for Science & Policy
By Trent Knoss
In early 2020, as COVID-19 began to upend life in the U.S., the Museum began collaborating with the Colorado School of Public Health on a way to provide reliable information about a once-in-a-generation scientific challenge at a time when all of us — scientists, doctors, policymakers, the public — were learning about the virus together in real time.
The idea: a weekly Monday morning webinar hosted by the Institute for Science & Policy (one of the Museum’s eight Everyone, Everywhere strategic initiatives). Each episode would focus on a different COVID-19 topic and feature a 45-minute conversation with scientific experts.
“The first session came together very quickly, from brainstorm to on-air in about five days,” said Kristan Uhlenbrock, director of the Institute. “We were brand new to the virtual programming space, but we wanted to embrace the opportunity to be part of this important educational effort.”
The premiere episode featuring Dr. Jonathan Samet, dean and professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, drew nearly 1,000 live viewers, many of whom sent in questions about asymptomatic infections, social distancing and testing. Hundreds more watched the session afterward on Facebook and YouTube.
“There was definitely a desire for clear, credible, timely information,” said Uhlenbrock. “We didn’t initially plan how many episodes we’d do. We just started lining up more guests and kept on going from there.”
A record of our pandemic year
Over the next 12 months, the COVID-19 sessions became appointment viewing for many, covering topics ranging all the way from vaccines to variants to mental health to racial inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. Notable guests along the way included Colorado Governor Jared Polis, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, and former U.S. Centers for Disease Control director Tom Frieden.
The series recently concluded after its 30th episode, having reached more than 20,000 households in Colorado and beyond. Collectively, the episodes will endure as a kind of historical diary, navigating the developments of the pandemic in real time.
“Over this very challenging year, our number one goal with these webinars has been to demonstrate leadership by communicating accurate and trustworthy information that empowers the public to make informed health decisions,” said Samet, who co-founded the series and served as project advisor.
For the Institute, which facilitates civil, thoughtful discussion on policy issues involving science, the pandemic epitomizes the kind of wicked societal problem that requires both evidence-based thinking and a balanced approach to tradeoffs.
“We witnessed the body of scientific knowledge around the coronavirus evolving quickly, and then at the same time, that needed to be squared with real-world policy decisions around things like stay-at-home orders and masks,” said Uhlenbrock. “Following the science is sometimes easier said than done.”
Click here for a compendium of the entire COVID-19 webinar series.
Wolves, wildfire, and more
As it turned out, COVID-19 was just the beginning for the Institute’s virtual offerings. Last fall, the team partnered with the Center for Collaborative Conservation at Colorado State University to create a five-part webinar series around the question of reintroducing gray wolves in Colorado, which was set to appear on the ballot in November. Many viewers lauded the series for taking a nuanced, science-based approach to an issue that evokes strong emotions on both sides.
The CCC and the Institute reunited in the spring for a four-part virtual discussion on wildfire in the Western U.S., bringing in climatologists, policymakers, journalists and forest managers to talk about ways that humans might live more sustainably with hotter, larger fires.
“This partnership allowed us to combine expertise and reach a larger audience than either of us could have done alone,” said John Sanderson, director of the Center for Collaborative Conservation. “On two highly relevant topics, our audience really appreciated how we were able to explore complexity and conflict through civil dialogue.”
Most recently, the Institute has continued its longstanding Earth Day climate change event partnership with Denver7 Chief Meteorologist Mike Nelson, plus teamed up with the CU Center for Bioethics & Humanities to host sessions on mistrust in medicine and the ethical dilemmas of human gene editing. The Institute-created Future of Energy series also wrapped up a successful nine-episode arc in May.
And there’s still much more ahead: Even as the pandemic recedes and in-person gatherings return, virtual programming and strategic partnerships are likely to remain a key component of the Institute’s outreach going forward.
“Now that we’ve all experienced this new normal of online meetings, we see them as a way to ensure equitable access for those who might not always be able to join us in person,” Uhlenbrock said. “We want to bring science and policy to people right in their communities, because these are important conversations and in order to make lasting progress, we need everyone to be engaged and have their voices heard.”