Recognizing Brooke Smith: Realizing The Vision And Finding COMPASS’s Niche

Vikki Spruill, author of this post, sits on the COMPASS Board of Directors and is president and CEO of the Council on Foundations.

Fifteen years ago, Jane Lubchenco (Oregon State University), Chuck Savitt (Island Press), the Packard Foundation, and I all sat together discussing the need for science to be better connected to the rest of the world. We had all come to this table from different paths: a scientist committed to ensuring that her knowledge and that of her peers did more than just sit on shelves and in journals; a publisher working to ensure complex ideas were accessible and relevant to the world; a conservation and science change-maker working to support efforts so that environment and society can thrive together; and me, a communication professional who knew just how important—yet how hard—it was to get scientists’ voices elevated in the media and policy worlds. We collectively wanted the same thing: for scientists to be effective communicators and to be supported to navigate their way to relevant and meaningful people and conversations. This vision would become COMPASS.

Brooke Smith and Vikki Spruill at the 2016 COMPASS Staff Retreat.

Brooke Smith and Vikki Spruill at the 2016 COMPASS Staff Retreat.

The concept for COMPASS had some unique challenges. The need for this kind of endeavor was clear, but difficult to describe—what would it do? How would it work? Who would do it? A science communication and boundary organization before the terms were ever coined, COMPASS needed to be networked, nimble, and savvy in science, communication, and policy. It needed to focus on training and connecting scientists, rather than advocating for specific outcomes or elevating an institution. This meant that many of the impacts of COMPASS’s work would be long-term, knock-on ripple effects, hard to identify and attribute but vital for the kind of institutional, social, and environmental changes we hoped to catalyze. COMPASS needed a unique combination of talent and structure to support making this vision a reality.

Within the first few years of COMPASS’s work, it became abundantly clear that we were on to something. Scientists clamored to work with COMPASS. Journalists and policymakers saw COMPASS as a trusted source for people, science and ideas. The COMPASS team, with its innovative and passionate approach, was connecting scientists to the media, helping scientists access policy offices in Washington D.C. and along the West Coast, and beginning to develop fundamental training materials to help scientists gain communication skills. My fellow founders and I all agreed it was time to invest in seeing what COMPASS could become.

At that time, Brooke (then Simler) Smith was COMPASS staff, working out of Oregon State University. Brooke reached out to me and others to say “I believe in this organization, I am passionate about the vision, I have a vision for what COMPASS can be, give me a shot at helping COMPASS realize its full potential.” Brooke became COMPASS’s first Executive Director.

For the past decade, with Brooke at the helm, COMPASS has exceeded our expectations. The impact of COMPASS is impressive; we’ve seen the COMPASS team help scientists articulate, frame and advance key issues such as ocean acidification, fisheries, marine protected areas, wildfire and others. The COMPASS staff are communication training pioneers, from writing the book about communication tools to developing training materials and activities for scientists. Brooke would say COMPASS’s successes reflect the talents of the team, because that’s the kind of leader Brooke is—supporting those around her to do amazing things, and giving them the credit.

While COMPASS’s achievements reflect the work of many talented individuals, it took Brooke to build this science communication concept into a thriving organization. Brooke’s vision, dedication, leadership, tact, communication savvy, science chops, and steadfast effort turned COMPASS into what it is today. Under Brooke’s leadership, COMPASS grew over the past fifteen years from idea to a field-leading organization. Once a collection of full and part-time people at various institutions under a fiscal sponsor, COMPASS is now an independent 501(c)(3); from our early years of having a single funder, COMPASS now enjoys a diversified portfolio of revenue from both philanthropic and earned revenue sources. Originally focused on ocean scientists, COMPASS now supports all scientists working on topics at the intersection of environment and society. COMPASS employs and attracts talented, dedicated, generous people to contribute to this work, and operates at the leading edge of science communication and boundary organizations, with Brooke and others on the team sharing their perspectives, lessons and advice with the burgeoning field of science communication practice. Brooke’s thought-leadership led her to serve on the National Academy of Sciences Roundtable “Public Interfaces of Life Sciences;” share her vision for a better science communication infrastructure; organize thought leaders to consider how we fund science engagement; write many blog posts on the field and practice of science communication (including her recent and final post about race, equity, power and science—a space more science leaders need to step into), and participate in fora focused on science engagement, funding science communication, and environmental and communication strategies.

Brooke has helped articulate what made, and makes, COMPASS so unique—an organization that focuses on concepts, not campaigns; that concentrates on people and process, not payoffs; that sees the potential in present opportunities and has the patience for long-term outcomes; that recognizes the value of bringing scientists—not just science—to the table, and the power of the conversations, relationships, and ideas that result.

A few weeks ago, the COMPASS Board and staff were together for our annual retreat. As we prepared for Brooke’s departure, we celebrated her contributions to COMPASS. I was blown away by the outpouring of stories, gratitude and emotion from the COMPASS team. Among the laughter and tears, we heard stories about how Brooke hires talent when it’s identified, rather than when there is a job opening; is a cheerleader (literally and figuratively) for the team; tirelessly puts COMPASS first; thinks broadly and creatively about where science communication, science culture and funding need to evolve to support more scientists to engage in society, and is the eternal optimist. She is truly a beloved leader.

The COMPASS team took our idea—that scientists have a contribution to make to society and to the public discourse about the environment —and achieved our original concept while also continually refining it to fit the evolving needs of the scientists they serve. Thank you, Brooke, for making our vision a vibrant reality. We know your passion for science and for making the world a better place, coupled with your ‘can-do-anything’ attitude, determination, and diplomacy, will lead you to more great things.


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  1. Karmel James says:

    Thank you Vikki for eloquently capturing Brooke’s legacy in such a profound way! Over the past few months its been challenging to express any emotion other than sorrow for Brooke’s departure but this gracefully illustrates that we’re not losing Brooke because her spirit is forever imbedded into COMPASS.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtfulness, Karmel. I couldn’t agree more that this brilliantly captures Brooke’s legacy, where we’ve been, and how far we’ve come! And yes, Brooke will always be a part of us :).

  2. Jane Lubchenco says:

    I echo Vikki’s eloquent and richly deserved tribute to Brooke. Brooke is a magnificent leader, wise agent of change, and generous soul who is admired by everyone who knows her. We took a risk in asking her to lead COMPASS ten years ago, but she rose to the challenge and has vastly exceeded all of our expectations and hopes. Thank you, Brooke for leading COMPASS to become the vibrant leader it is and helping make our world a better place.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Jane – thank YOU for all you’ve done and continue to do for COMPASS – from your role as a founder to taking a risk on Brooke to continuing to support us today in a myriad of ways. I am grateful for all that I’ve learned about leadership and what it takes to be an agent of change from you and from Brooke.

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