By Rob Jordan

From climate change to food security, science is at the center of many of the most pressing challenges facing society. Yet scientists often go unheard in public debates over these issues. Now, more than ever, finding solutions requires researchers to go beyond their labs and fieldwork, to engage policymakers and the public.

Four scientist-communicators – all Leopold Leadership Program fellows – recently discussed their experiences and prescriptions for altering the academic landscape with a standing room-only audience at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston on Feb. 16. The session was called “The Beauty and Benefits of Escaping the Ivory Tower.”

“No ecosystem is pristine anymore, so, in a way, we are studying the effects of ourselves,” said Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Elizabeth Hadly, an environmental biology professor and the event’s co-organizer. That makes it all the more urgent to lead the way to more inclusive scientific discussions. “A lot of leadership is listening. It’s not just me transferring my knowledge to the public, but listening to what the public wants to know.”

Hadly and the session’s other panelists, co-organizer Dawn Wright of the Environmental Systems Research Institute, Jessica Hellmann of the of the University of Notre Dame and Leah Gerber of Arizona State University, agreed that just keeping up with their research is a full-time job. So, they advised scientists pursuing broader engagement to first consider their expertise, talents and time. These factors can help a researcher determine whether to become a campus leader, a community leader, a network builder or an informal consultant, among other options.

Whatever path a science-communicator takes, it doesn’t have to be a burdensome time or energy drain, Wright said. By way of comparison, she recalled how her academic grades improved during the time of year that she played basketball in college – a product of heightened focus and discipline. Just presenting information in more compelling formats – such as “story maps” that combine interactive data maps with multimedia content – is a meaningful way to inform, educate, entertain and inspire a broader audience, Wright said. “(Engagement) can be just plain fun.”

A desire to engage a larger audience motivated Wright, Hadly, Hellman and Gerber to become Leopold Leadership Program fellows in 2011. The Stanford Woods Institute-based program provides outstanding academic researchers throughout North America with the skills, approaches and theoretical frameworks for transferring their knowledge into action. The program has trained 175 fellows so far and recently announced its 2013 cohort.

Even with training such as the Leopold Leadership Program, however, scientists can struggle to connect with a broader audience. Gerber cited a survey in which Leopold fellows described barriers to engagement ranging from time constraints and a lack of institutional support to discomfort and lack of know-how. So, Gerber asked, “How do we enter into an era of solutions-oriented work?” Part of the answer, she said, lies with university leadership and its choice to value engagement in faculty evaluations, provide time and training, and develop metrics for engagement’s impact. As an example, Gerber suggested that graduate students be rewarded for spreading their work via social networks and outreach to local schools.

“It’s time to abandon the idea that engagement conflicts with academic work,” Hellmann said. While it can be hard to juggle with demands such as family, science communication work is worth it, she said. Scientists at different career and personal life stages can adjust their engagement work accordingly, Hadly added. “It’s the most gratifying part of what I do.”

 

For more information about “The Beauty and Benefits of Escaping the Ivory Tower”:

·       Follow the session’s continuing conversation on Twitter, #AAASbeit.

·       Check out an overview of the session and related resources here.