Sharing Our Stories Of Scientific Engagement

At the 2012 AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver B.C., I attended the “Good Science, Good Communication: Talking to the Media and the Public“ session. I was uncomfortably squished between two attendees, but we were lucky to be on the inside. People were five rows deep in the hallway, shushing passersby, in desperate attempts to hear the speakers. (Overflowing rooms in science communication talks at the major conferences we attend seems to be the rule rather than the exception these days.) The discussion period opened with what felt like half the hands in the room shooting into the air, waving with urgency and enthusiasm. One of the few lucky enough to be called on made a powerful statement: “I know it’s hard to do this, to find the time or even the courage to communicate outside academia – but if there is one thing we can all do, it’s to be supportive of our peers that do choose to communicate, and choose to get out there.”

We agree.

We support you.

2013-02-15 14.13.05

View from the stage in our 2013 AAAS session “A New Social (Media) Contract for Science”. These overcrowded rooms show the enormous appetite for conversations about science communication. Please jump in online this week with your questions, experiences, and insights. #reachingoutsci. Photo: Karyn Traphagen, 2013

Effectively engaging outside of academia demands considerable time, commitment, and practice. For the past decade, COMPASS has worked to support scientists who are ready to make that investment. We know it’s scary. We also know that increasing numbers of you want to do it. And we know, for those of you already involved, that it is rewarding. It makes a difference.

Today, the COMPASS team published a paper in PLOS Biology called “Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement”. It traces our own arc of supporting scientists from ‘outreach’ (simply broadcasting a clear message) to meaningful, multi-directional engagement. Ultimately we believe that engaging outside academia is rewarding, but also that it should be rewarded.

Our experiences of working alongside many talented, brave, hardworking and generous scientists through the years inspired our article.  We want others to hear these amazing stories too. What did it take to “get out there”? What was hard? What was easy? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way? How did it help (or even hurt) you? What advice do you have for others considering making the leap?

This week, we are encouraging scientists who are sharing their science with broader audiences to now come back and share those experiences with their colleagues. We believe if we share our stories, give each other props, ask each other questions – we can move the needle. Want to see science communication rewarded, encouraged and taught at your institution? Then be part of the change. The antidote to criticism is support.

The ideas you’re sharing will join a sprawling discussion that transcends any single institution. Expect to see different voices sharing different perspectives in different formats. Hashtags are really handy for tracking these kinds of discussions, so we’re piggybacking onto the existing #reachingoutsci theme. (A hashtag is like a keyword, including it in tweets, text, and tags links a body of related ideas. #reachingoutsci is an ongoing conversation of guest posts, twitter chats, and more, hosted by Nature’s SpotOn series. The scope of #reachingoutsci is broad, but over the past few weeks, the focus has been on case studies in social media for science communication. We hope this conversation will generate even more!) We will also simply be pointing you to the list of perspectives and contributions here, so revisit us over the next few days for the latest.

Most importantly, join this conversation. Those crowded rooms at AAAS and other conferences are not just because the speakers are drawing crowds, but because there is an appetite for dialogue around these issues. We see a trend – at meetings, in workshops, and online. More and more of you are jumping into the conversation about communicating your science.

We hope as many of you as possible will share your stories this week (and beyond!)– on your own blog, on your friends’ blogs, in comment threads, anywhere online that works for you. Help us and others find your story by including a “#reachingoutsci” somewhere. At the very least, like that passionate AAAS attendee pleaded, please show your support! Comment, react, respond, encourage, applaud – engage!  We’ll see change.



We asked scientists we’ve worked with over the years to share their stories of engagement – not just the successes, but the hard lessons as well. Here are their stories:

In other contributions

…and more to come

About Brooke Smith

Brooke Smith is the Executive Director of COMPASS. She spends a lot of time thinking about the friction - yet incredible need - for science to be closer to society. She is in awe, and appreciative, of the scientists that are paving the way by getting out there and sharing their science, knowledge and insights with the wider world. It motivates her to ensure COMPASS continues to thrive, to support scientists to find their voice, and to join the most relevant conversations.


  1. David Goodrich says:

    I am part of a large team of scientists that has been working closely with elected officials, decision makers, and resource managers for upwards of 15 years in the San Pedro Basin in SE Arizona. The San Pedro is a globally important site for biological diversity and military communications. The scientific team has integrated their research with the Upper San Pedro Partnership (USPP- The USPP is a consortium of 21 local, state and Federal entities, NGO’s, private organizations, and science agencies (USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and USGS) with the goal of maintaining flows in the last free flowing perennial river in the Southwest while ensuring sufficient water for residents of the basin and of Fort Huachuca. Our work with the USPP has transcended the typical role of adapting our research to meet their needs (i.e. technology transfer) to actually designing our research to directly address their needs. All the while the science team has published aspects of this research in numerous peer-reviewed journals. The USPP in turn, had the resources and clout to acquire funding for much of this research.

    I, and few others of this large interdisciplinary research enterprise, regularly attend USPP meetings going on for 12 years now (typically twice a month in Sierra Vista, AZ – 90 miles from our base in Tucson). We serve as spokes people for the science team. This long-term engagement, while very time consuming, has allowed essential trust building between the scientists and decision makers. In the process we have learned a lot about each other’s worlds. The decision makers now know a lot more about the scientific process, the time it takes, uncertainty, and that our science and models evolve as we conduct specific research and collect more observations. We scientists know a lot more about the political realities elected officials face in making tough decisions and the science they need to support these decisions.

    I would argue that not every research scientist needs to commit to this level of long-term engagement with decision makers, but a few research scientists do. I continue to publish, as I must, but I find my engagement with the USPP to be very rewarding as my science, and that of the team, is making an impact now. My level of engagement with the USPP vastly speeds up the slow diffusion of our scientific discovery from the peer review literature to common use in decision making. We all need to realize that very few if any or our elected officials read our journal papers. It took over 20 years from the publication of foundational research by one of my mentors, now in the National Academy of Engineering, to come into relatively common use in the consulting community. We have to do better! I often joke in seminar presentations to aspiring university student scientists that when I publish a paper me and my six best friends read it. A good colleague retorted, “oh – you have six”.

    A summary and lessons learned by our group in the San Pedro is recounted in the following book chapter.

    Richter, H., Goodrich, D.C., Browning-Aiken, A, Varady, R. 2009. Chapter 9: Integrating science and policy for water management. In: Ecology and Conservation of the San Pedro River. Ed. by J. C. Stromberg and B. J. Tellman. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. P.388-406. (you may obtain a pdf of the chapter at:

    Thank you for initiating this conversation.

    David Goodrich
    USDA-ARS, Tucson, AZ

    • David, thank you for sharing. The shift you describe from information transfer to responsive research design is deeply inspiring. This is a perfect illustration of Jane Lubchenco’s A New Social Contract for Science, in which she calls for scientists to “address the most urgent needs of society, in proportion to their importance”.

      When I read your account of the long-term effort you’ve put into relationship-building, I wanted to applaud. It’s not the stuff that necessarily makes headlines, but I think it’s the only thing that will really change the world.

  2. Thank you for making the effort to go over this, Personally i think strongly about this and love learning more about this subject. If at all possible, while you gain expertise, can you mind upgrading your site with increased information? It’s very useful for me personally.

  3. I understand the 2012 clinic was live tweeted; were the tweets saved, and if so, where could we read them?

    Is there a quality online forum for asking and answering/discussing questions about science communication? (There needs to be.)
    Maybe AskReddit?


  1. […] post is part of a conversation on science outreach centered around a commentary in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement.  Also see related posts here, here, and here. […]

  2. […] reactions, reflections, and personal experiences expanding the conversation. Read the summary post here, and track the conversation on Twitter by searching for […]

  3. […] story of engaged scholarship as part of a blog carnival orchestrated by COMPASS. Read more at the COMPASS blog and Heather’s website. We invite you to join the conversation and comment here or on the […]

  4. […] reactions, reflections, and personal experiences expanding the conversation. Read the summary post here, and track the conversation on Twitter by searching for […]

  5. […] But the most important lesson is realizing that outreach, a one way monologue to the public, is dead.  COMPASS itself has moved away from “outreach (simply broadcasting a clear message) to meaningful, multi-directional engagement.” […]

  6. […] communication is at a tipping point. When workshops receive 700 applications for 50 spots and conference sessions routinely overflow, we know we’re approaching critical mass.  For decades, we’ve making the case for broader […]

  7. […] communication is at a tipping point. When workshops receive 700 applications for 50 spots and conference sessions routinely overflow, we know we’re approaching critical mass.  For decades, we’ve making the case for broader […]

  8. […] of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences we hope will expand the conversation. Read the summary post, or track the conversation by searching on Twitter for […]

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