How good storytelling helps turn research into action
This is the story of an organization—founded on a simple idea and meant to solve a complex problem.
In 1997, Dr. Jane Lubchenco laid out a “new social contract for science.” She called for scientists to focus their efforts on the most necessary challenges of our time—the unprecedented environmental changes to our planet. She wanted scientists to put their research to work in service of the world.
“Science is more than just fascinating knowledge, it is also useful knowledge,” said Lubchenco, former Administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and current Trustee of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. “I believe passionately that science should inform our decisions.”
Motivated by this vision, Lubchenco, Vikki Spruill (then of SeaWeb, now President and CEO of the Council on Foundations), Chris Harrold (then of Monterey Bay Aquarium, now retired), and Chuck Savitt (Island Press) banded together in 1999 to form COMPASS in partnership with the Packard Foundation.
For most of their first decade, COMPASS focused on ocean science. In recent years, they’ve widened their scope to include the full natural system of oceans, land, air, and water.
COMPASS’s purpose, then and now, is to empower scientists to share their knowledge with the broader world. Too often, in this age of information, the right information is not getting into the hands of the right people to make a difference.
The first step to having an impact? Engaging people to discuss why science and knowledge is relevant—or identifying the “so what?” of science.
COMPASS helps scientists become storytellers, and helps them find the right people to share their stories with.
The goals of COMPASS include:
Help scientists escape from the ivory tower.
Train scientists to communicate more effectively with non-scientific audiences.
Get everyone in the room together. Help scientists share insights with journalists, policymakers, and others, so that light bulbs go on—illuminating new ways of thinking about complex problems and solutions.
Create a scientific culture where communications skills are valued.
While it may seem obvious that up-to-date and accurate science should inform the media, there is a gap between what scientists know and how journalists interpret and translate that research. And there is perhaps an even wider gulf between policymakers and scientists.
This is where COMPASS comes in.
COMPASS provides communications coaching and training for scientists. They give journalists fellowships to attend scientific conferences and help arrange panels and dinners that bring journalists and scientists together.
They bring scientists to Washington, D.C. and to state governments for briefings and in-depth discussions. They also bring policymakers to scientists, by hosting field trips where policymakers go out into the field with scientists or attend scientific conferences to facilitate panels and give remarks.
It sounds simple.
COMPASS does it very, very well.
The goal of the Packard Foundation’s Science program is to produce information and data that is useful in decision-making in order to help conservation efforts. The program’s website states that “Useful knowledge is usually timely and relevant, trusted by decision-makers, and is produced in a transparent, inclusive way in collaboration with users.”
COMPASS focuses on just that: supporting scientists to transform knowledge into useful knowledge. The organization is contributing broadly to building a culture among the scientific community that values communications. They are helping scientists to cast a wider net of influence. That influence has informed media conversations and public policy discussions.
Now a national leader in science communications, COMPASS is seen by Congress, governmental agencies, and the Administration as a reputable connection to scientists.
They also have some great stories about scientists who have become passionate and effective communicators.
In early 2015, Dr. Jenna R. Jambeck, from the University of Georgia, authored a paper in Science titled “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean.” Jambeck wanted to be sure her research on quantifying marine debris, or ocean trash, had an impact. So she approached COMPASS for support in figuring out how the research fit into the public and policy discourse.
COMPASS helped Jambeck and her co-authors boil the data down to some key takeaway messages. As COMPASS frequently tells scientists, “The data does not speak for itself.” COMPASS also coached the authors on how to give interviews and introduced them to journalists in the COMPASS network.
The research received widespread coverage in major media outlets, including BBC, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, NBC, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. The day after the story broke, it was “reported” by The Onion, a farcical newspaper featuring world, national, and community news.
“We often say that once something is satirized, you know you’ve pierced public consciousness,” said Smith.
Policymakers in Washington, D.C. became aware of this work and the issue of ocean trash through the media coverage, and Jambeck was invited to a Congressional event. COMPASS helped her prepare to share her science through the appropriate lens, and also helped her set up meetings with other influential decision-makers while she was in D.C.
When Dr. Scott Doney first agreed to media and policy training with COMPASS in 2004, he didn’t think he would ever put the preparation to use. His research was focused on ocean acidification, a little-known issue at the time. COMPASS helped him figure out how to frame that research for a wider audience. Two years later, he published an article in Scientific American.
It caught the attention of then–Representative Jay Inslee (now governor of Washington), who reached out to COMPASS to organize a briefing on the issue for members of Congress. By 2008, a House of Representatives committee approved a bill to promote and coordinate research on ocean acidification. Doney was called to testify.
“Having someone with a critical eye who knows the science but also how things work on Capitol Hill, someone who can say ‘that’s too much jargon’ or explain the proposed legislation or the constraints—that’s an invaluable service COMPASS provides,” Doney said.
Answer the question that was asked.
Measure twice, cut once.
Speak plainly, please.
Build your army.
Effective communication is about targeting your audience, and also giving them what they need. This requires first listening, then responding. COMPASS doesn’t train scientists to become policymakers, or even advocates—COMPASS just helps scientists learn who to connect with, how public policy decisions are made, and what information is needed. It’s a “help them help us help the world” mentality that smoothes the information flow for everyone.
“For scientists who would be agents of change, communication is not an add-on. It is central to their enterprise,” wrote Nancy Baron, Director of Science Outreach at COMPASS, in a 2010 article for Nature. “They begin with a goal in mind, frame their research questions to produce useful results and think about how they will disseminate the information.”
One of the great lessons philanthropists can learn from COMPASS’s philosophy is about integrating communications from the start of a project— they urge scientists to “ begin with the end in mind.” How can this program or project eventually be public facing and what will that effort require? What can be baked into the cake from the start? Communication is not just icing on the top.
Plain-speaking matters, no matter the audience. Policymakers are people too. Talk with and to them, not past or at them. Getting your point across does not require overly in-depth information—and it definitely does not require jargon. You need a clear and easily understood story (that doesn’t sacrifice substance).
Helping key influencers develop and leverage new communications skill sets requires dedicated support and staff time. COMPASS isn’t a scientific public relations agency. Instead, they train scientists to be communicators and connect them with non-scientific audiences. It’s hard work, and it takes an entire organization to do it.
But teach scientists to tell a story about fish...and they’ll hit the front pages of the biggest papers on the East and West Coasts.
COMPASS is a team of science-based communication professionals. They all share a foundation of scientific training, but also have a diverse collective background in science, policymaking, science journalism, and natural resource management. This enables them to work at the intersection of science, policy, and communications. With PhD scientists, former Capitol Hill staffers and award-winning science journalists on the team, they bring the knowledge, experience, and relationships needed to help scientists share their information with society.