In 2005, Nick Houtman assisted in launching Oregon State University's Terra Magazine to promote to the general public the scientific research endeavors of the university's faculty and students through print media. For the last eight years Terra has connected readers with Oregon State University’s latest findings in energy, Earth systems, natural resources, health, the economy, the arts and the social sciences. This interview was conducted by Nathaniel Brodie, via email in the spring of 2013.

 

Can you speak about the life-path that brought you to the editorship of Terra?

I grew up in Menlo Park, California, and graduated with a bachelor’s in mass communications and journalism from Stanford University. My most meaningful experience was a two-year internship and friendship with the publisher of The Peninsula Bulletin, a community newspaper in East Palo Alto. I learned about Black community values, challenges and hopes and gained insight into a diverse culture of many faiths and traditions. After college, in search of a broader life experience, I worked in a furniture factory, cooked in a Wisconsin “supper club,” and helped to launch a regional magazine before becoming a reporter at a small-town weekly newspaper. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a master’s in Water Resources Management, I worked as a science communicator at the University of Maine. I served on the Orono city council, monitored water quality on a local lake and taught religious education classes at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Bangor.

 

Terra always portrays the scientist in conjunction with the research. Obviously, data doesn’t exist within a vacuum, but what is the importance of telling the story of the person behind the science?

We learn through stories. Done well, they can be thrilling, inspirational and informative. Terra’s mission is to portray the research at Oregon State University to a diverse audience of decision-makers, educators, news media editors, businesses and OSU donors. We do that through long- and short-form stories that convey challenges, partnerships and outcomes in disciplines from engineering and oceanography to anthropology and philosophy. To varying degrees, we weave science with personal narrative to make stories relevant to the lives of our readers. We assume that our readers have more than enough to do in their jobs and in their personal lives. We aim to capture their attention through great photos, illustrations and stories that they can’t put down until the end. We strive to earn their trust and to inspire them to join us in some way in addressing the extraordinary challenges we all face in these times.

 

What do you see as the role of Environmental Arts and Humanities on a science-dominated campus?

We see the results of science and engineering all around us. They have transformed our lives, our culture and our relationship to the world. However, they are inadequate to address questions that are central to the human experience: Who are we? How can we ease each other’s pain? How can we forgive? How can we live well together? These are questions that the Environmental Arts and Humanities program can address. Our technological prowess threatens to undermine humanity, not to mention the planet, so this work is urgent.

 

I’m wondering your thoughts, as an editor, about an issue that seems to be popping up more and more: science advocacy. An oxymoron? A problem? What are the parallels with journalistic objectivity? Where and how and when does science journalism or a science journalist draw the line between reporting and advocacy?

Great question. Pure objectivity is a myth. We bring our full emotional and thoughtful selves to the stories we write. We select facts, voices and details in the service of accuracy, knowledge and truth. While scientists and journalists hold objectivity as a high value, they take different paths toward that goal. Writers entertain as they inform. Terra is not a textbook, so we present science in a narrative that has emotion and drama. A scientific report, on the other hand, reports verified facts about context, method, results and meaning. While much of the scientific enterprise is drive by values (health, diversity, productivity, resilience), it is at heart an attempt to understand how the world works. So in reporting the results of their investigations, scientists strive for a straightforward presentation of facts, one that ideally steers clear of value-laden language.

For a science journalist, the line between reporting and advocacy depends on circumstances. For example, Terra advocates for Oregon State University. OSU’s interests and values color everything about the magazine. We collaborate with our faculty and students and aim for authenticity and accuracy, but we are accountable to OSU leadership as well as to our partners and our readers. So we look at science not just as a curiosity-driven activity to understand the fine details of plankton ecology or social networks but as an expression of the university’s land grant mission to serve Oregon and the world.

 

One thing I admire about Terra is how successfully it straddles the print and digital worlds. The website is far more than just a digital version of the print journal; it’s cleanly designed and fully embraces new media tools: blog, podcasts, supplemental videos, Twitter and Facebook profiles. In terms of science communication, are these new media devices simply tools that scientists don’t normally employ, or are they adding something new? In other words, is Terra’s research science + narrative + new delivery systems a process that’s greater than the sum of its parts?

Communications have become fragmented. In the past, a single magazine or nightly TV newscast could capture a large share of the public’s attention.  Today, we are inundated with mobile social media (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. . .) as well as blogs, TV, radio and print. Newspaper and magazine readership is declining, although TV still dominates the public’s media landscape. In order to reach a diverse cross-section of people, we need to be present in many if not all of these media. Terra reaches donors, faculty and others through online media, but print still makes an impact.  Alumni magazine reader surveys indicate an overwhelming preference, even among young readers, for print. However, online media have a far greater reach, as demonstrated by comments on Terra stories that come from people throughout the world. Followers of the Terra Facebook and Twitter feeds range from high school students to retirees, from businesses to PR professionals and news media. Yes, Terra’s multi-faceted approach to science communications is diverse and fragmented. While we have not done a recent reader survey to demonstrate impact, we aim to present a coherent picture through all of these channels of a research community that is making a difference to the state and the world.

 

Your role in all of this doesn’t stop at 5.00pm when you clock out of the office at OSU. You  co-ordinate free, monthly “Science Pubs” in downtown Corvallis; are the president of the Corvallis City Club; and were a city councilor in Orono, Maine from 1998-2004.  Is this public service a continuation of your work in bringing science into the public realm and possibly seeing it enacted into public policy, or does this well from even deeper beliefs about citizenship and civic discourse?  

I enjoy contributing to my community. It’s that simple. I’m always intrigued by the interactions among science, art, public policy, education, local government and other aspects of public life. But ultimately I just enjoy being part of something bigger than myself and feeling that I can contribute something useful. For me, that means bringing evidence to bear on decisions and listening to the views of others.

 

An article about you in the Daily Barometer, OSU’s student-run newspaper, states: “He also cautions against the unattended adverse effects that could result from society misusing scientific knowledge before humanity has had the time to fully grasp the long-reaching implications of the discovery.” This is very similar to how we at EHAI regard Environmental Humanities: that meeting future challenges will require new ideas and leadership based on a scientific understanding of Earth’s environmental systems and grounded in a deep understanding of the sources of human wisdom and values. Can you speak to this a bit more?

We are such a clever species. Apparently ever since we came down out of the trees, we’ve been good at finding new ways to do things. That curiosity has led us to live in and exploit all sorts of extreme places, from some of the coldest places on the globe to some of the hottest. We are adaptable, but we have not been particularly good, Aldo Leopold reminds us, at saving all the parts of the places we have learned to inhabit. We have discovered so much new knowledge, but as we put it into practice, we find that it may be too late to restrain our enthusiasm to prevent great harm. So now we find ourselves with sophisticated technologies, sensitive instruments and the ability to manipulate the world — even to destroy it — without the collective ethical framework to manage all this power for long-term health, for what we today call “sustainability.” We may yet engineer our way out of the great environmental transitions we have set in motion. I’m not optimistic, but I do think we need to keep searching for ways to come together.

 

An article came out a few years ago that examined the upbringing and childhood influences of a number of our nation’s great environmental leaders and conservationists. There turns out to have been fairly consistent influences that set them on their path, including:

  • Long term experiences in outdoors
  • Mentors
  • Literature
  • Special Places
  • Witnessing destruction of favored environments
  • Formative Youth Experiences (ice-fishing, hunting, Boy Scouts)

Could you speak to one or two of these influences for you, personally?

Not that I see myself in that company, but I love good stories. Science fiction (Jules Verne, the Tom Swift series, Rachel Carson) captivated me as a boy.  I spent several summers at Clear Lake in Northern California and was moved later by Carson’s description of DDT spraying for mosquito control there in the mid- to late-1950s. That was about the time my family went there for vacations. I caught my first fish at Clear Lake and had no idea at the time about what had happened to that ecosystem. My mother also took my sisters and I to the beach at Aptos on hot summer weekends. I was shocked years later to see how the beach had been eroded by winter storms.  It’s tempting for me to say these and other experiences led to a sense of loss, but truthfully, I was a visitor to these places.  I had a transient relationship to them. My life didn’t depend on the health of Clear Lake or the beach at Aptos. Still, it has become clear to me that we tinker with the planet at our peril. We lack the wisdom to anticipate the consequences of our technology and our collective drive for happiness in any meaningful way. If there is a source of hope, it comes from the passion and creativity of youth who see a future that is different than the one that is offered to them through our consumer culture.

 

Speaking of literature, what are you reading now? What science or nature writers do you consider “must-reads”?

Favorite books over the past few years: Beyond the Hundredth Meridian by Wallace Stegner; The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson; Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi; Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner. Just finished Mink River by Brian Doyle and have started Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.  Among science and nature writers, my heroes are Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, John McPhee, Wallace Stegner, Jonathan Weiner.