Science. Communication. Community.
Ever since Figure One debuted, I’ve wanted to write about… figures. What can the best ones do? Turns out they can be your elevator speech -or- guide your entire narrative.
If science policy reports were people, the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Strategy might have its jersey hung from the rafters. The report weighed in at a mere 110 pages (plus appendices), yet it paved the way to a coveted prize: a new $120 million research hub.
Like most success stories, the Strategy had many things going for it – timely research, strong leadership, and (I kid you not) lively writing – but its figures are what first drew me in, and what I focused on during a recent chat with Dr. Diana Bauer, who led the report’s team of authors.
You may recall back in the fall of 2010, when rare earth elements became the topic du jour. China, which mines roughly 95 percent of the world’s rare earth elements, had begun blocking shipments to Japan, the US and Europe.
China’s move was especially daunting to clean energy industries, since rare earth elements are used in wind turbines, electric vehicles, and fluorescent lighting.
Fortunately, the DOE was already hard at work on its Strategy, aimed at (1) diversifying global supply chains (2) finding substitutes and (3) lowering demand using the three R’s. (Note: the Strategy addresses an array of rare materials that includes, but isn’t limited to, rare earth elements.)
When the Strategy premiered in December, it escaped the fate of so many government reports – gathering dust – and instead garnered coverage in the NYTimes and beyond.
In particular, says Bauer, a pair of graphics (one shown below) from the report’s Executive Summary became minor celebrities. It’s easy to see why. This figure (like its counterpart “Medium Term”) reads instantly and answers the perennial question “Why now?”
Bauer recalls attending conferences, after the report was published, where fellow panelists would use these figures in their presentations before she herself had the chance to present.
There’s a third figure that Bauer says was also pivotal to the report’s success. It shows the supply chain for critical materials along the top of the chart, with risks and constraints — as well as actions that could be taken to mitigate them — along the base.
The team member who sketched this figure was “really into thinking through how everything relates,” says Bauer. Far from an after-thought, this graphic guided the team towards an overall structure for the report with a “sensible, logical flow at lots of levels.”
Which isn’t to say that the rest of the report’s figures came easy. Bauer says her team spent long hours arguing about what information was best to include or exclude from supply and demand projections in the heart of the report. (See Chapter 7 of the 2010 edition or Chapter 4 of the 2011 update, if you’re curious.)
I suppose this gives new meaning to the cliche that a picture’s worth a thousand words.