Know Thy Policy Audience

Mark Nechodom (left), Director of the California Department of Conservation, starred in masterful role-playing scenarios for Switzer Environmental Fellows at the COMPASS policy and communication training on October 5th. He's depicted here at a 2012 conference, signing a Memorandum of Understanding, with Jim Kenna of the Bureau of Land Management, to coordinate operations in California for oil and gas industry oversight.

“Know thy audience. Know thyself. Know thy stuff.”

We offer this quote by the late Steve Schneider in COMPASS’ communication trainings as a guiding principle for scientists preparing to share their science with the wider world.  Schneider, one of the first climate scientists to work as an active adviser to policymakers in the White House and federal agencies, passionately believed that scientists have a social responsibility to communicate what they know and that “staying out of the fray is not taking the high road, it is just passing the buck.” His messages to scientists both challenge and inspire.

But there’s a lot of nuance in learning how to communicate effectively with policymakers. Chad delved into this issue in his recent post, “A Policymaker Walks into the Forest.” But I found myself thinking more deeply about Schneider’s first instruction, “Know thy audience,” as I prepared, earlier this month, to lead a COMPASS communication and policy training for Switzer Environmental Fellows at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. [Read more...]

A Policymaker Walks Into The Forest…

Helping policymakers to navigate a topical landscape – the forest and the trees – can make scientists trusted resources for decision-making.

Photo courtesy of Bart Busschots via Flickr.

A recurring challenge for scientists talking to policymakers is finding the match between the details that the scientist focuses on and understands, and the details that the policymaker needs to make their decisions. I often see scientists struggling to calibrate their message to the right level of specificity. Missing the mark on this can kill an otherwise promising conversation, but more importantly, increases the probability that you will squander real opportunities to become a trusted resource. [Read more...]

Carpe Diem: Two Opportunities for Scientists to Help Shape Federal Policy

Image credit: msciba on Flickr CC-BY2.0

Academic researchers are keen to make their science relevant and to get it into the hands of those who can use it, like policymakers. But it is often hard for scientists to identify the right time and place to engage in a particular policy discussion.

For researchers who work on water, ecosystem restoration, climate adaptation, and ecosystem services, there are two opportunities unfolding right now. First, the White House wants input on the implementation of the newly revised Principles and Guidelines for Water and Land Related Resources Implementation Studies ­­­­– known inside the acronym-loving Beltway as the P&G. Second, the Department of Commerce is seeking feedback on the Draft Initial Comprehensive Plan for restoration in the Gulf of Mexico. [Read more...]

Plastic Pollution: Scientists Engaging to Make a Difference

Plastic pollution litters a beach in Welgelegen, St. Maarten.

Photo courtesy of Fabi Fliervoet via Flickr Creative Commons.

Persistent plastics pose problems for the planet. (Say that five times fast!) While many groups and organizations have been working to document and combat the problem, it wasn’t until recently that several scientists took a bold step. By identifying a gap between existing science and outdated policy, the scientists were able to suggest a policy change that might really help the persistent plastics problem. By labeling some plastics as hazardous, they said, society will be forced to look at, manage, and treat plastics differently.

Behind this argument lies a story of two scientists – Ph.D. candidate Chelsea Rochman of UC Davis and Postdoc Mark Anthony Browne of NCEAS– and their journey of engagement and outreach that may ultimately help change the way that international and federal agencies approach the challenges of debris in the environment. [Read more...]

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.

[Read more...]

Embracing Change to Stay Relevant

Juliet Eilperin interacts with scientists at a COMPASS training. She recently announced she'll be leaving the environment desk to cover the White House for the Washington Post.

I once heard healthy organizations are constantly changing. This means effective leaders are not only agents of change but are also change managers. As the Executive Director of a science communication organization, this philosophy has become a mantra for me as I strive to keep our organization healthy. Because we operate at the nexus of the quickly moving worlds of science, media and policy, recognizing that embracing and adapting to change is the norm means that it’s OK that this is part of our daily work too. Embracing change has liberated me. [Read more...]

Finding the Science Signal in the Budget Noise

Flying Money

Most of us have had our fill of the “fiscal cliff,” are glad that we’re (technically) past it, but dread the next round of this fiercely political debate. In the midst of this – in two weeks time – the President is supposed to present his proposed budget to Congress and the next federal budget cycle will start. That’s been delayed, but not likely by more than a few weeks. Most people who don’t live inside the Beltway are blissfully ignorant of this incredibly complex and sometimes convoluted process, although it can have real bearing on their lives. In addition to the obvious implications for science funding, scientific conferences are reportedly feeling the direct effects of federal budget limits. After eight years inside the Beltway, I still learn something new about the federal budget every year. [Read more...]

Trade Secrets at Sea: How Much Information is Enough?

The author (awkwardly) poses near the (smelly) baleen of a stranded fin whale taken in for necropsy at a lab in Woods Hole, MA. Photo by Maureen Lynch.

*This post was slightly modified from its original version on Dec. 4,2012

Marine fisheries observers rarely claim a space in the media spotlight. It’s an obscure job – only a couple of hundred people work as full-time observers in ports across the country – but the valuable at-sea data they collect for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is used by fisheries managers, fish biologists, and watchdog groups alike. In the October 26th issue of Science, however, fisheries observers made national science news.  Earlier this year, NOAA announced the proposal of a new rule that would dictate how much, and in what detail, information collected by observers is made available to those outside government. Limiting the use of these data is controversial because the observer program uses government funds – $40 million according to Science – and because the agency is mandated with managing a resource of the public trust, something that’s difficult to do well while restricting data.

To me, though, this issue is anything but obscure. In “my other life,” prior to joining COMPASS, I worked as a marine fisheries observer for nearly three years. Based out of Point Judith, RI and New Bedford, MA, I worked aboard commercial fishing boats… everything from tiny day trawlers to 48-hour gillnetters to multi-day bottom trawlers to longliners and factory ships that froze and boxed squid at sea. I’d spend anywhere from a few hours to 14 days on a trip, collecting safety, gear, economic, catch and bycatch information for the databases at NMFS. [Read more...]

Field Notes: Reflections from the Policy Front Lines

The 2003 Knauss Fellows interviewed for this post in 2003 with then-NOAA Admiral XXX, clockwise from top left: Barbara Piechel, Rachel Feeney, Bridget Ferriss, and Sunshine Menezes.

When Chad and I prep scientists to participate in policy briefings, we often share our own experiences of entering the policy arena for the first time as Knauss Marine Policy Fellows.  Chad talks about finishing his dissertation on a Friday in 2005 and showing up the following Monday in the Senate Commerce Committee, bright-eyed, bushy tailed, and expecting to bring the latest scientific discoveries to members of Congress. Only then he discovered that Congressional offices don’t have direct access to journal articles (or even read academic papers). I tell scientists about the time I spent on the Hill in 2003, helping to draft bill language for reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the House Committee on Resources – I was suddenly expected to be an expert on marine mammals and on how to write arcane legislative language… neither of which were part of my actual skill set at the time.

Chad and I have both incorporated insights from our Knauss fellowship experiences into our current work with COMPASS at the intersection of science and policy. When COMPASS does communications and policy trainings for scientists, we talk about the idea that understanding these cultural differences is the key to making effective connections between the two worlds. I’ve been especially curious to hear what others experienced when they stepped out of science and into the policy world, and since it’s been nearly 10 years since I started my fellowship in the Subcommittee of Fisheries, Oceans, and Wildlife in the House Committee on Resources, I decided to ask some of the other legislative fellows in my cohort.  Through a brief series of questions, I asked a few of them about the lasting take homes they see from their fellowship experience, how it has shaped their worldview, and to reflect on what they saw as key differences between the culture of science and the culture of policy. [Read more...]

The Media (still) Sets the Agenda

A member of the media ask a question in a briefing.  Photo courtesy of The U.S. Army via Flickr.

*denotes a link that automatically downloads in PDF format

In spite of the changing media landscape, the media still sets the agenda for policy discussions. This is one of the biggest reasons COMPASS incorporates journalist trainers, and a focus on traditional media, in our science communications trainings. And, while we recognize that news is moving increasingly online – and that the interplay between traditional and new media is undoubtedly complex* –  the traditional media continues to play a key role in setting the agenda, even for online content. [Read more...]