Reporting Back And Looking Forward From #GradSciComm


This post is co-authored by Liz Neeley and Erica Goldman. It is a continuation of our series on our NSF-funded GradSciComm project.

It was approaching midnight on December 5, 2013, and the COMPASS team was running out of gas. We were in the middle of our two-day #GradSciComm meeting at the National Academy of Sciences. “The only way out is through,” we told ourselves, bleary eyed and punchy with fatigue.

Day 1 had gone quite well. Our stellar group of participants – science communication researchers, practitioners, administrators, and graduate student leaders from a range of STEM disciplines – had engaged with an enthusiasm that was more than we could have hoped for. They were brimming with ideas of what might be done. Yet we were struggling with how to coalesce all of the insights from Day 1 to move ahead in working groups on Day 2. One particular roadblock felt like it was obstructing every path forward: the lack of funding.

Around and around we went, until suddenly – a breakthrough! What would happen if we stop thinking of funding as a roadblock… and instead think of it as a solution to obstacles we face in teaching and conducting effective science communication? What are the first and most transformative investments that we could make? Once we demolished that roadblock, all the pieces began to fall into place. We powered through a synthesis of the discussions from Day 1, locked down the specifics for breakout group assignments, and were ready to charge into Day 2. [Read more…]

Don’t Forget The Big Stuff: The Many Paths To Relevance


One of the more infuriating comments I hear all too often about academic scientists is that they’re irrelevant. Floating about in lofty clouds of superfluous knowledge, they develop layer upon layer of jargon and complexity about something with tangential applicability (at best) to the real world. Admittedly, that’s not exactly what I’ve heard, but that’s the gist. And, while this caricature may hold slivers of truth, it surely doesn’t describe most of the scientists I know. They are driven to make a difference in the world. They want their work not only to be cutting edge, but to also be relevant.

Many scientists hold a deep-seated fear that no matter how much they desire to make a difference, their science just might not matter. We struggle, asking, “What good is a biogeochemist, compared to heroism like that of the first responders during the Boston bombings?” (Do take the time to read that blog post, please. It moved me. I even left my first-ever comment.)

Recently, while giving a talk about the professional path I’ve carved outside of academia to women in science here at Oregon State, I was reminded of my own quest for relevance as a grad student. Writing a concluding paragraph in a manuscript to justify the real-world application of my PhD research just wasn’t cutting it for me. In my role with COMPASS, my contribution to what matters is to focus squarely on the big picture, synthesizing ideas, seeding connections among scientists, and ultimately forging stronger connections between science and policy. This is my path to relevance. But it’s just one of many. [Read more…]

Interdisciplinary Science: The Final Frontier

The away team stands ready to engage.

Throughout my training as a research scientist, I hopped across disciplines – oceanography, ecology, population genetics, and fisheries – and even across the food web – from diatoms to halibut.  What I learned from my adventures is that the key to facilitating effective interdisciplinary science is not just incorporating the right fields, but also ensuring those fields are represented by the right people.  The best collaborations come about when you have a group of scientists who are well grounded in their own work, but also have the curiosity, generosity, and communication skills to work across boundaries (it also helps if you don’t mind being stuck on a ship or at a field site with them for weeks at a time.)

Tackling challenging, big-picture science questions that are relevant to policy sets the bar for scientific collaboration even higher.  To illustrate my point, I turn to a time-honored cultural reference among science types – Star Trek.  First, there’s the ship’s crew: a community of people from cadets to captains with a variety of expertise, working together to make new discoveries and keep things running.  However, from time to time a call for help is issued from a nearby planet and the right people are then carefully selected to comprise the away team.

[Read more…]

Beyond Crunching Data: The Power Of Ideas

Am I a scientist? I have a Ph.D. in ecology, but I don’t do primary research. In the eyes of some of my scientist-colleagues, I’m not the real deal. As the Director of Science for COMPASS, my job is to harness the power of the collective voice of science. Ideas that have the power not only to inform, but to transform conversations, especially in the policy arena. Doing synthesis is doing science. So, of course I am a scientist

Mosaics – so much greater than the sum of their parts

What does synthesis mean to me? To some, synthesis means data crunching and meta-analysis, and these are both powerful and much-lauded aspects of science synthesis. But there’s also another dimension: conceptual synthesis. By weaving individual threads of scientific ideas together, we can step back to look at the whole tapestry. And by stepping back, we sometimes see something we had not seen before – a whole new picture. Can we describe that new picture in a compelling way that resonates with audiences we’re trying to reach? Does it get us any closer to answering “so what?”

A recent symposium at NCEAS (National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis) brought together la crème de la crème of the ecological science community to reflect on NCEAS’ contributions over the past 15 years and to construct a vision for the future – NCEAS 2.0. In an inspiring keynote, Jane Lubchenco emphasized the importance of science in service to society. “Relevance is not a 4-letter word,” she said.  Science can be both relevant to real-world issues and cutting-edge. [Read more…]