With the Flip of a Switch…

Photo Courtesy of Cayusa via Flickr Creative Commons

For as long as I can remember, I have been enamored with all things ocean. I expressed my passion as a scuba instructor, taking kids diving and showing them how remarkable different ocean ecosystems are. My favorite part was always witnessing “light bulb moments”—when they saw something underwater that really triggered their excitement. This moment is often comical: their eyes grow large behind an already magnifying mask, accompanied by a whole body shimmy, and maybe even an underwater squeal.

At COMPASS, we spend a lot of energy trying to create these “ah-ha” moments for our audiences. These moments can range from scientists realizing new ways to channel their passion such as through social media, decision makers relating to science in a way that resonates with them, or journalists discovering the next big science story. COMPASS spends a lot of time creating the space to spark these moments.  Often a difficult roadblock to overcome when understanding or appreciating the importance of science is a lack of connection to the subject or purpose. By understanding what a particular audience already cares about, we help scientists highlight their “so what?”—why should I care about this? When you create the connection to why they should care, we can turn on some light bulbs. [Read more...]

In Memoriam: Scott Nixon

We at COMPASS are deeply saddened by the sudden loss of Dr. Scott Nixon, from the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. We are grateful to have had even a brief opportunity to work closely with him. Just last week, he and two of his long-time colleagues and friends worked with us to share their collective insight, gleaned from decades of painstaking work, with Congressional and agency staff. His passion and dedication for his work – and for sharing it with others – inspired us, as we know it has inspired generations of his students and colleagues.

Scott dedicated his life’s work (some 43 years as he told us) to building and sharing a deeper understanding of our relationship to our coastal ocean, particularly of Narrangansett Bay. As a scientist, Scott pushed outward the boundary of knowledge of estuaries and coasts. Through his participation in National Academies of Science studies and as director of Rhode Island SeaGrant, he put that knowledge and his scientific perspective to work for society.

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…But What Should We Do?

May 15th Senate Briefing

This post was co-written by Assistant Policy Director Erica Goldman.

It was less than an hour before the May 15 briefing was scheduled to begin when scientist Jim Cloern posed this question to a Senate Staffer: “So what is it that you are hoping to hear from us?”

COMPASS had invited Cloern, of the U.S. Geological Survey, along with his two long-time colleagues, Walter Boynton, from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and Scott Nixon, from the University of Rhode Island, to Washington, D.C. to brief Congress on what they had learned over their long careers in estuarine science. Together they represented a combined 116 years of experience studying San Francisco, Chesapeake, and Narragansett Bays.  Over that time, these scientists have amassed a very long view on ecological well being of their respective water bodies.

It was that “long view” that COMPASS recognized as a potential way for these scientists to help shift the dialogue on Capitol Hill on the value of ecological monitoring – something often viewed as “not my job”, and as a burdensome, never-ending drain on financial resources. When money is tight, which is true now more than ever in the U.S., the budget for things like continually tracking the status of a system or monitoring a project’s effectiveness is often the first thing to go.

The Senate staffer paused before responding to Cloern’s question.  Her answer came in the form of another question – one that gets at the heart of the challenge scientists face when trying to share what they know with policymakers: “We want to know, ‘What should Congress do?’” [Read more...]

Dancing with Data at ScienceOnlineSeattle

Do we wilt under the dim glow of mobile devices? Photo by Phil Todelano for the Atlantic

On the grand list of things to worry about, the internet is rarely far from our minds. We brood about privacy, security, and access, and we agonize over whether social media is guilty of making us lonely, reinforcing fast, lazy thinking, and damaging our relationships with each other and the real world.

It’s no surprise that many scientists are skeptical about the utility of social media, and disinclined to invest the energy in exploring how they might use it, right? Why would anyone add yet one more thing – with questionable return on investment – to our grinding workloads?

At COMPASS, we spend a lot of time thinking about mobilizing science and supporting culture change, and I think it helps to start by asking: what do I get out of this? How does it support or improve the hard work I already am doing? In my experience, social media is not just changing the way we can share finished research results, but it’s changing the way we do the work of science. [Read more...]

Interdisciplinary Science: The Final Frontier

The away team stands ready to engage.

Throughout my training as a research scientist, I hopped across disciplines – oceanography, ecology, population genetics, and fisheries – and even across the food web – from diatoms to halibut.  What I learned from my adventures is that the key to facilitating effective interdisciplinary science is not just incorporating the right fields, but also ensuring those fields are represented by the right people.  The best collaborations come about when you have a group of scientists who are well grounded in their own work, but also have the curiosity, generosity, and communication skills to work across boundaries (it also helps if you don’t mind being stuck on a ship or at a field site with them for weeks at a time.)

Tackling challenging, big-picture science questions that are relevant to policy sets the bar for scientific collaboration even higher.  To illustrate my point, I turn to a time-honored cultural reference among science types – Star Trek.  First, there’s the ship’s crew: a community of people from cadets to captains with a variety of expertise, working together to make new discoveries and keep things running.  However, from time to time a call for help is issued from a nearby planet and the right people are then carefully selected to comprise the away team.

[Read more...]