COMPASS Transitions: Looking Back to Look Forward

Brooke Smith

Fifteen years ago, I sat in Jane Lubchenco’s office at Oregon State University asking for career advice. Jane’s office is a reflection of her – full of accomplishments and warmth. There are stacks (and I mean STACKS) of manuscripts and journals around the office, awards both on the walls and piled up on top of each other, pictures of her family (by blood and by lab genealogy), and keepsakes from Africa to the Arctic. Even though Jane’s reputation intimidated me (and still does), she was warm and welcoming (and still is).

I wiped my sweaty palms on my legs, took a deep breath, and said, “I would love your career advice.” Here was my privileged dilemma – I was considering two great job offers. I could accept a prestigious Knauss Fellowship in Washington D.C. for a year, or I could accept an advocacy position at an ocean conservation non-profit.

I asked Jane what she thought I should do. She listened intently to my rambling and reasoning. Then, of course, she asked a question. This is something that we teach at COMPASS – to listen; ask; listen; share. Even if you (especially if you) already have an opinion, listen first. Her question was simple: “What do you want to do?” After a heavy sigh, my response was: “I’m unsure exactly what IT is.” I went on to explain how I love science. How I love the environment. How I love to connect people and ideas, think big, and try new things. How my previous work experiences in Washington D.C. helped me understand the public policy process and culture – including the surprising lack of science at the table during decision-making. I didn’t feel like either of these job opportunities were the right choices for me. I wanted to find a way to bring in the science, but in a way that made it relevant to all these people, audiences and communities – policymakers, NGOs, the world… but where could I do that?

Jane said, “Let me tell you about this thing a few of us are starting called COMPASS.”

She explained the frustration she and other leaders in the science, communication, policy, and philanthropy worlds felt around the disconnect between scientists and the real world, especially on ocean issues. “What we know about how oceans work, how they are changing, and the benefits and consequences of those changes,” she explained, “is not reflected in how people think about oceans or in our policies and practices.” We went on to discuss how scientists were not well equipped to get out in the world and talk with people about what they know. In fact, sometimes they are even discouraged from doing so. We also discussed how there were not enough efforts to elevate knowledge instead of institutions – and how co-founder Vikki Spruill was working to address this in the social sector, and bringing her innovative thinking to science communication. COMPASS was born as an experiment – a way to help scientists fulfill their social contract. I wanted in.

I started with COMPASS that week. Four years later, I became the first Executive Director. And at the end of this year, I’ll be leaving, secure in the knowledge that COMPASS is stronger and more vital than ever.

That’s because over the past fifteen years our mission has only grown more needed and our work has only grown more impactful. Our vision and goal: to help more scientists to get out in the world and transform, frame and accelerate critical conversations about the environment. Our shared belief: that scientists should have a seat at the tables where public agendas about the environment are set and advanced, but they need help getting there and being effective once they are. Our core competencies: training scientists, and connecting scientists to influencers of the public discourse. Our amazing team: we all love science, and especially scientists. We care deeply about the environment. We want to make a difference. We thrive on thinking big, making connections, and generously supporting others.

The COMPASS team

The COMPASS Team – our biggest asset in supporting scientists to engage in the world.

We found our ‘special sauce’ in our collective experiences in policy, science, media and communication, which blend together to inform our work and help us achieve our mission. We continue to tweak and update our recipe – evolving and changing in response to the world around us. And, wow, the world certainly has changed. We used to have to motivate scientists to get out into the world. Now, scientists want to engage. The research about science communication has exploded. New media channels are dismantling old information sources. The political pendulum has swung back and forth, and players have come and gone. And our environmental challenges – from climate change to water availability to ocean acidification – have become more urgent.

In response to these changes, we expanded our scope beyond ocean science to include water, fire, climate, energy, ecosystem services and other scientific topics about the environment. We developed ways to help scientists and journalists meet and learn from each other. We pioneered new ways to reframe scientific conferences to be more relevant to the world, by hosting journalist fellowships or including policymakers as part of these conferences. We’ve created space for scientists and policymakers – from the White House, to Congress, to state legislatures – to share, discuss, and learn from each other. We’ve created communities of confident scientists prepared to engage around topics like fire, ocean acidification, or marine protected areas. And with partners like the Leopold Leadership Program, the Switzer Fellows, the Wilburforce Fellowship and others, we’ve empowered new cohorts of scientist leaders.

As we navigated the rules of scientific engagement, our organization evolved too. We began as a project incubated at Island Press and then SeaWeb. We started with a single funder, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, that not only shared our vision, but was willing to invest in the long term to give us space to try, learn, and grow. Now, we are an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit with a diversified revenue portfolio, including both foundation grants and earned revenue. Our budget grows each year. We’ve built a strong operational, financial and administrative base, ensuring that our inter-disciplinary team is supported to do its great work.

We teach a lot of things in our training sessions; one important lesson we teach scientists is to push themselves to a place of discomfort – that’s where we all learn and grow. So, after 15 years at COMPASS, I’m taking our own advice – and pushing myself to a place of discomfort. My decision to step down from COMPASS at the end of this year was a hard one and an emotional one. In some ways, I could happily stay at COMPASS forever – the people, mission and work embody that hard-to-define “IT” that I was searching for in Jane’s office years ago. Being able to leave an organization during a time of strength is all too rare. I’ve learned it takes strength to do it. I’m proud to have been part of building and defining what this experiment has turned into. Some recent personal events, though, have starkly reminded me that life is short. I believe in new experiences; there’s still much for me to learn, try, and do.

Someone recently said to me, “I can’t imagine COMPASS without Brooke.” I can, without hesitation. COMPASS is stronger and more needed than ever. The opportunities for continued success and growth are enormous. The team is a remarkable collection of intelligent, innovative, and passionate people. We get more requests for our services than we can handle. We have ideas and opportunities waiting to be pursued. We have money in the bank and committed donors. Our board – a remarkable combination of scientists, communicators, and political appointees (Democrats AND Republicans) – is engaged and ready to help COMPASS transition to its next leader. I can imagine COMPASS without Brooke, but it’s a bit harder for me to imagine a Brooke without COMPASS. I’m both nervous and excited (“nerve-cited” as we say at COMPASS) to figure out what that looks like.

My first order of business will be to give my husband and two amazing daughters, who have had to share me with COMPASS for many years, my full attention over the holidays and the New Year. But after that? Much like fifteen years ago, I don’t know exactly what “IT” is – but I know it’s going to continue to be about my love for science and scientists, connecting them to society, facilitating changes that allow for more scientists to engage, and working toward a world where both environment and society can thrive.

Our search for COMPASS’ next Executive Director begins immediately. We’re looking for someone passionate and energetic, aligned with our mission, and eager to lead COMPASS as it continues to grow and support more scientists to engage in the public discourse about the environment. The Board has retained Explore Company to serve as our search partner. Click here for more information, including a job description and Explore Company’s contact information.

Six Practical Guidelines For Public Engagement

Image by Don Boesch, via Twitter.  Left to right: Mark Barteau, Baruch Fischhoff, Dan Sarewitz, Detram Scheufele, Roger Pielke and Nancy Baron.

The Michigan Meeting for Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse brought scholars, practitioners, and communicators to the University of Michigan from May 13 – 15 to discuss why and how scientific scholarship should contribute to issues of public importance. Instigated by Andrew Hoffman, a 2008 Leopold Leadership Fellow, the meeting inspired and stimulated both the people at the conference (including many faces familiar to COMPASS, such as Leopold Fellow and COMPASS board member Dawn Wright, and Leopold Fellows David Hart, Jennifer Cherrier, and Joe Arvai) and many who were following the active twitter stream #AcadEng  (click here for a Storify of tweets under #AcadEng; selected events were also filmed and are available here).

COMPASS’ own Nancy Baron attended the meeting, and along with Baruch Fischhoff, Roger Pielke Jr., Dan Sarewitz, Dietram Scheufele, and moderator Mark Barteau, discussed “What are Some Guidelines for Public Engagement?” this past Thursday. We’ve reprinted her remarks from that panel here, edited for readability.

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Packing It All In

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Before I started traveling more often for work, I used to pack for trips by thinking about all of the things I wanted to bring with me…and then stuffing as much as possible into my allowed luggage. Who knows, I just might need three different pairs of flip-flops! But as this chore became more frequent, I realized how often I didn’t really use most of what I brought, and that my packing method was exhausting both to execute and lug around airports. And so, like any good scientist, I re-examined my method and realized that I should focus on just the things that I thought would be the most useful. Those extra pairs of flip-flops would be waiting when I returned home, and I could always purchase something I needed on the road in a pinch.
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True Leadership Takes Risking Being Yourself

Reflections of the Gallatin Mountains in the pond at the B-Bar Ranch, Emigrant, Montana. 

Photo courtesy of Amanda Hardy.

How do you gain leadership skills as a scientist? Although common elsewhere (particularly in the for-profit world), leadership training is almost non-existent for scientists. The Leopold Leadership Program and COMPASS trainings are notable exceptions. And unfortunately, like science communication, leadership skills are not part of graduate training (but perhaps they should be). Recently, I accepted a generous invitation to strengthen my leadership skills through TREC, courtesy of the Wilburforce Foundation. It was a transformative experience that has left me with new insights and much food for thought.

When it comes to leadership, many of us fall into the trap of trying to be like someone else. We ask ourselves, “How can I inspire like Jane Lubchenco or speak out like Stephen Schneider?” Pick your heroes. But the point is, these are the wrong questions. Being a leader isn’t about being like someone else. Instead, it’s about finding your own voice and being who you are. There’s no single way to be a leader. [Read more…]

Our News And Information Diets: The Problem With Picky Eaters

Prior to each of our communication trainings, COMPASS asks the participating scientists, “Where do you get your news?” It’s an open-ended question*, but the answers are almost always the same – they listen to NPR, read the New York Times, and watch the Daily Show. (*to clarify: asked in a confidential written survey)

Fair enough! NPR was the exclusive soundtrack to my years at the lab bench, what about you?
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Budget Trade-offs: A Zero-Sum Game

Once the budget subcommittee has decided on their 302(b) sub-allocations, the battle for dollars becomes a zero-sum game.

PHOTO BY CHAD ENGLISH.

Should this dollar go to the NSF or to the FBI? It can’t go to both. You have to respect the people who make that decision.”

David Goldston of the Natural Resources Defense Council made this comment in front of a full room at the AAAS annual meeting last month (you can find paraphrases of this comment in the Twitter stream, Storified here). This is a very real choice, and it’s being set up right now through the federal budget process. There are thousands of people on Capitol Hill this week trying to make the case for their programs including probably hundreds of scientists and science supporters.

The seemingly endless budget and spending and sequestration noise coming out of D.C. can seem overwhelming and tedious. With sequestration threatening even the annual White House Easter egg roll, the budget rhetoric in D.C. remains heated and the gridlock seems complete. The President still hasn’t released a budget proposal for 2014 and now isn’t expected to until next month (despite my earlier prognostication). But for Congress, the budget process is marching on, and the tradeoff David described is getting set up right now.

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Navigating Forks In The Science Career Road

Sometimes the relationship between advisor and student is more similar to parent/child than student/teacher. To leave the path of straight academia that the advisor chose for themselves can be alienating.

The realization that I might not want a traditional career in academic science started as a slight nagging feeling that wouldn’t go away. I didn’t want it to be true. After all, I had already invested so much in academia. And, more importantly, many eminent scientists throughout my undergraduate and graduate training had already invested so much in me. How could I let them down? [Read more…]

Resolving To Say ‘No’ To Get ‘Yes’

Sometimes it takes saying 'no' to get to 'yes.' Photo via cpalmieri on Flickr.

Every year my husband and I spend New Year’s dinner talking about our previous year: What were our goals, our highlights, how did we do? In addition to patting myself on the back for successfully getting to Pilates classes more regularly, I also found myself proudly recounting COMPASS’ evolution this year. COMPASS’ goal for 2012 was to explore the possibilities of expanding our communications savoir-faire beyond ocean science, to develop a plan and roadmap for what this might look like. We all felt excited and energized at this potential but we also felt some angst and trepidation. But now, a year out, we can look back and say we’ve come a long, long way and have successfully defined and aligned behind a vision of what our future looks like. And, with all of 2013 in front of us, our next goal is equally one-part thrilling and one-part daunting: retool our organization and expand our capacity to achieve this new vision. [Read more…]

Communicating Risk Vs. Communicating Science

Residents received orders to evacuate before Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in coastal New Jersey. Shown here is the ravaged amusement park in Seaside Heights. Photo from the National Guard.

“Don’t be stupid, get out.”

Governor Chris Christie minced no words when he issued the mandatory evacuation warning to the residents of New Jersey’s barrier islands as Hurricane Sandy made her approach. To anyone thinking about staying behind, he cautioned, “If I turn out to be right, and you turn out to be dead, that’s not a great equation.”

This is a clear example of a public official communicating risk and asking the public to act based on that statement. To arrive at the decision to evacuate, Governor Christie weighed scientific projections of the storms impact, along with information on the integrity of infrastructure, traffic flow, social behavior, and other factors. But Christie’s blunt statement left little room to question that he held ultimate responsibility for making the public call-to-action. [Read more…]

Hot, Sour, And Breathless

Left to right: David Malakoff, Science; Alok Jha, The Guardian; Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post; Christopher Joyce, NPR; Jim Barry, MBARI; Scott Doney, WHOI; Dave Hutchins, USC; and Anne Cowan, WHOI.

This week, 572 scientists gathered in Monterey for the Third International Symposium on the Oceans in a High CO2 World. The numbers mark a sharp increase from the first symposium in 2004 in Paris where the community of ocean acidification scientists numbered only 124. And, this time, the mood was more urgent.  Atmospheric CO2 is entering the ocean and it is acidifying fast… the ocean is 30% more acidic than prior to industrialization. Combine this with rising ocean temperatures and decreasing oxygen levels (which cause dead zones) and, in the words of Swedish scientist Sam Dupont, you have an ocean that is increasingly, “hot, sour and breathless,” for its inhabitants. What these changes mean – from effects on plankton to shellfish and fish to entire marine ecosystems – was the subject of the meeting. [Read more…]