In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, Karen McLeod (Interim Executive Director of COMPASS) asks how scientists can more effectively engage with people in their communities about how the world is changing and what that change means for them specifically.
Like many of you right now, we at COMPASS are reflecting on our relationship with advocacy. Just as we advise scientists, figuring out where you fall on the advocacy spectrum is a personal choice—it’s not a matter of right or wrong. We have long described ourselves as an organization that is “non-partisan and non-advocacy.” While we don’t advocate for specific environmental policies or legislation, we do (and always have) advocate for science and scientists to be at tables where decisions are made. One of our core beliefs is that policies and discussions that include science will be more informed and more robust. We remain as firmly committed to this belief today as we were last month, last year, and under the previous three administrations.
Advocacy is a messy topic—something that means different things to different people—and it’s getting messier. Within the realm of science relevant to environment, in particular, many scientists have had a long-standing, uncomfortable relationship with advocacy (the A-word), fearing a loss of credibility and/or backlash. But the perception of what defines advocacy is tightly wed to context, and today we find ourselves in a new era. As Liz Hadly said earlier this year in The Guardian, “What is occurring now against science and scientists in the US goes beyond ideology and political party. Now we find our discourse under attack.”
Scientists, individually and collectively, are embracing a new imperative to advocate for science—for the ability of scientists to share their science with the public free of political interference, for evidence-based decision-making, and for the very foundations of science as a way of knowing. For many of you, advocating for science’s merit or application is becoming less uncomfortable, and more of a necessity. You are mobilizing to speak up and speak out like never before. As individuals, societies, and institutions, scientists are organizing, marching, reaching out to their elected officials, and running for office. Organizations such as AAAS and the Union of Concerned Scientists are leading the charge to stand up for science and scientific integrity.
Despite a long history of bipartisan support, science is now perceived by many to be strongly partisan, and by some to fall squarely in the realm of the liberal elite. We each have a role to play in breaking down these stereotypes and creating a more constructive conversation about the roles of science in society. How can we more effectively engage with people in our communities about how the world is changing and what those changes mean, not just at the 30,000’ level, but what those changes mean for them specifically? For what they care about? For their welfare and their well-being?
For one, we need to humanize the conversation. In a thought-provoking piece on why scientists shouldn’t march on Washington in the New York Times earlier this week, Robert Young said, “I suggest that my fellow scientists march into local civic groups, churches, schools, county fairs and, privately, into the offices of elected officials. Make contact with that part of America that doesn’t know any scientists. Put a face on the debate. Help them understand what we do, and how we do it. Give them your email, or better yet, your phone number.”
Regardless of whether or not you support the March for Science, we hope you’ll commit to engaging with others about your science. In a guest editorial Jane Lubchenco said: “Now is the time for a quantum leap into relevance.” What might that leap look like? Engagement is a willingness to put not just your science out there, but also yourself. It’s about listening, with empathy and humility, to truly understand the concerns, perspectives, and beliefs of others. It’s about finding common ground and common values, and connecting with people based on where they are, rather than where you want them to be.
COMPASS remains steadfast in its mission, and we will focus on doing what we do best—supporting scientists to engage. We will continue to advocate for science to be at the table and ensure that all scientists are welcome there, regardless of discipline, gender, disability, affiliation, or ethnicity. We will lead by putting boots on the ground—through communication trainings, coaching, and creating strategic opportunities for you to engage with the right audiences at the right times. We’re also thinking about new ways we can help you achieve your own quantum leaps to relevance as we all navigate a new world. We look forward to sharing our thinking and approaches here as they evolve!
*This article was originally published on February 2, 2017. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.