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

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

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. [Read more…]

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.

2016 August Recess

At COMPASS, in addition to valuing scientists, connections, engagement, generosity, the environment, and working hard, we also value passion and balance. Because the pace and pulse of our work often reflects the pace of the academic and political calendars, August provides a chance for many of us to catch our breath. The blog will be taking a break too, and will be back after Labor Day! [Read more…]

About Us: Kelly Reardon

KellyReardon_16

Kelly Reardon is COMPASS’ new Director of Finance and Administration. He’s been hard at work helping us to prepare and execute our transition to an independent nonprofit, and is based in our Portland, OR office. [Read more…]

Happy Independence Day!

I was so thrilled to receive the official letter from the IRS stating COMPASS’ independent non-profit status.

It’s the Fourth of July—a day when we celebrate freedom, democracy, and independence. Our team is taking the time to celebrate with their loved ones this week, and we hope you’re able to as well! [Read more…]

Conference Season

COMPASS Journalist Fellows onstage at the 2015 Biennial Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference.

As schools let out and the days grow longer and hotter in the Northern Hemisphere, the busy buzz of the summer field season is often punctuated by a flurry of scientific conferences.

Conferences are great places to work on your communication, share your science, and connect with new people. They can be exhilarating and exhausting, stimulating and stupefying, optimistic and overwhelming – but don’t forget to incorporate ways to improve your communication skills and work toward your communication goals. This week, we’re sharing our top tips to help you communicate at conferences. [Read more…]

Putting Our Principles Into Practice

Stephen presenting results in his dissertation defense.

I recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was the result of many months of research, but also an opportunity to learn what it’s like to be a scientist communicating about my research and engaging in public discourse about the environment. These lessons will serve me well as I create the conditions for other scientists to shine and to talk in clear and compelling ways about what their research means to policymakers. [Read more…]

About Us: Stephen Posner

Stephen on a recent trip to Spain.

Stephen Posner is COMPASS’ Policy Engagement Associate, where he empowers scientists to engage with policymakers and connects them to conversations where their work is relevant. Stephen is based in COMPASS’ Silver Spring, MD office. [Read more…]

About Us: Meg Gilley

Meg with a pyrite specimen at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Meg Gilley is COMPASS’ Policy Engagement Specialist, helping scientists to share their work with policymakers and be part of policy conversations. Meg is based in COMPASS’ Silver Spring, MD office.

Prior to joining the COMPASS team, Meg did marine research from a tall ship and worked for the American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute. She received her Masters in Public Administration from the University of Washington, and has a particular interest in natural hazards research and community decision-making. Her experiences, she says, got her “thinking that maybe there was a way for me to combine my love of science with my love of people.” [Read more…]

About Us: Amy Mathews Amos

Coming home from the local Farmer's market in West Virginia.

Amy Mathews Amos is a part-time COMPASS Media Outreach Specialist, helping scientists to understand and navigate the world and culture of journalism.

Her broad and varied background at the interface of environmental science and public policy includes time as: an independent consultant for conservation groups and charitable foundations, the Program Director/Vice-President of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, a policy analyst for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now Earthjustice), and a senior evaluator at the congressional Government Accountability Office. Throughout, Amy’s work has focused on the environment, including freshwater, terrestrial, and marine topics. [Read more…]