The climate helpdesk

Open science in practice

“How much CO2 will I save if I turn down the heating?” “What is the difference between the environment and the climate?” Thanks to Utrecht Young Academy’s Climate Helpdesk, you could pose your climate questions directly to a researcher and receive a peer-reviewed response. In just a few months of the climate helpdesk’s existence, 150 questions have already been submitted. But what is it like to provide climate answers in an era of fake news? Founder Dr. Sanli Faez and editor Dr. Arfor Houwman talk about this, and about offering ‘open science’ from the bottom-up.

Increasing network of researchers 

With a complicated flow chart full of arrows on his screen, editorial coordinator Arfor Houwman takes us through how the climate helpdesk works. When a question comes in, the first step is to find a researcher at a Dutch or foreign university who can provide an answer. Ideally, this should be a specialist in the related field. The editors who carry out this work are researchers themselves and do this on a voluntary basis, in addition to their regular work. While the search for an answer can sometimes take a long time, their network is expanding, and experts are gradually being found at a faster pace.

Peer review 

Once an expert researcher has answered the question, the helpdesk’s next task is crucial. It is this step that makes the helpdesk especially relevant in a fake news era. Before the answer can go online, it is reviewed by another expert, just as it would be in a scientific article. Once these final comments are processed, the answer to the question is publicly shared.

Sanli Faez.
Founder climate helpdesk - Sanli Faez

Climate facts

This peer review process touches upon one of the main reasons why the young researchers started the climate helpdesk. “If you google ‘climate facts’ now, the first hit is a non-scientific site that claims that our climate is doing fine” says Faez. “From the questions that come in, we can see that there is still a lot of misunderstanding about climate change” adds Arfor. This is what the researchers are trying to counter; not by spending their time saying that the other websites are wrong, but by giving people the opportunity to ask their own questions or to factcheck information that they do not trust. By publishing all of their answers online, the researchers are building a knowledge base of scientifically substantiated answers, matching the questions that people actually have.

If you google ‘climate facts’ now, the first hit is a non-scientific site that claims that our climate is doing fine. We try to counter that.

Information chaos 

While it may be very hard to change the mind of a hardcore climate denier, the climate helpdesk knows that there is a need for this kind of information in the maze we face of online sources. Not only do they hear about this need from people in society, such as secondary school teachers, but they also notice it in the questions that are asked. Sometimes, these can be very practical questions, like whether or not it’s a good idea to install a heat pump. Other times, more social and political topics come up which are on people’s minds. These can be questions like, “Is there a scientific reason to keep aviation out of climate agreements?” or “Why is there a single ministry for economic affairs and climate?”. Just like platforms such as, where real general practitioners answer people’s medical questions, the helpdesk tries to be a reliable and accessible source of climate information in an otherwise difficult to navigate space.  

A peek behind the scenes

Another thing that Houwman noticed was that people often ask questions to confirm their own opinions, whether they are for or against the climate. Together with the person who posed the question, a more neutral and ‘scientific’ way to phrase the question is then agreed upon. For example, the question “Shouldn’t we all start eating vegan to save the world?” would be rephrased into “Does eating vegan help reduce greenhouse gas emissions?”. In this way, the helpdesk attaches scientific answers to a societal debate. Even more fundamentally, questioners get a glimpse into the world of science. At the helpdesk, they do not yet notice that science is losing authority. Out of a hundred questions, Houwman has only once experienced a questioner being certain that the scientific answer provided was incorrect.

Klimaathelpdesk voorbeelden

Open science from the bottom-up

The climate helpdesk is right in line with Utrecht University's new strategic plan. The university wants to focus on open science; involving citizens in the research process, making knowledge available in a quick and accessible way, and setting up the campus as a living lab where researchers, students, staff and citizens work together on climate solutions for the campus and for society as a whole.

Climate concerns

As much of a success as the climate helpdesk has been, this was largely thanks to the motivation of the researchers themselves. While overcrowded agendas are the norm in science, Sanli explains that there are volunteers who are devoting considerable time every week to the helpdesk. What is it that motivated them to devote their scarce time to this? Faez brings up that the volunteers simply care a lot about the climate. Also, researchers tend to enjoy sharing their knowledge.

Climate knowledge should become just as common as the awareness that you need to wash your hands.

21st-century skills

For Faez, there is another important motivator. In the 21st century, the climate is going to start affecting every aspect of our daily lives; including our salaries, our taxes, and where we live. It is therefore a topic that everybody should know about, Faez believes. Researchers cannot solve the climate problem alone. Think of healthcare. It’s not like everything about our health is the responsibility of the doctor. It just so happens that because we are all frequently washing our hands these days, far fewer people are getting sick. And yet, for a long time, this was not a normal gesture either. Climate knowledge should therefore become just as common as the awareness that you need to wash your hands. 

The series 'green stories' aims to give a view into the work by some of the researchers, students and employees that, in various ways, commit themselves to driving sustainable change; in the world and at Utrecht University. #groenverhaal

Would you like to know what else is going on at the UU with regards to sustainability? Take a look at the Sustainability Monitor.