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Meet The COMPASS Board: Michael Sutton


COMPASS is fortunate to have a fantastic board representing diverse perspectives and expertise from science, law, policy, and communications, with affiliations that span academia, industry, and philanthropy. We’re excited to provide a window into their role and history at COMPASS (see our previous profiles of board members Dawn Wright and Lynn Scarlett). Today, we’re pleased to introduce the Chair of our board, Michael Sutton!

Michael is an expert in ocean and coastal law and conservation, with experience in government (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the California Fish and Game Commission), philanthropy (at the Packard Foundation), and the nonprofit sector (Monterey Bay Aquarium, World Wildlife Fund, and the National Audubon Society). He has served on the boards of the Wild Salmon Center, the Ocean Foundation, the Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Program, LightHawk, the Santa Lucia Conservancy, and is a founding board member of Ocean Champions. Currently, Mike is leading the team creating the Pacific Flyway Center and serves as summer faculty at the Vermont Law School, where he teaches ocean and coastal law. In 2015, the American Bar Association published the second edition of his book entitled Ocean and Coastal Law and Policy.


I caught up with Michael to hear more about his connections to COMPASS and what motivates him in this work. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

What path brought you to COMPASS?

When I worked at the Packard Foundation, I helped found COMPASS, so I knew about the concept and vision from the beginning. Eventually I went to work at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and was a partner in COMPASS through that connection, but I really came to the COMPASS Board as a decision maker and ocean policy guy.

What has kept me interested in COMPASS—for almost twenty years—is the role of COMPASS as a bridging organization for scientists, journalists, decision makers, and the public. I’ve always been attracted to bridging organizations, because the most interesting work often involves unusual bedfellows. I’ve always enjoyed connecting people from different backgrounds and helping them to understand each other. COMPASS bridges an important gap between science and society.

A great example of that, and one of my favorite stories, is the role COMPASS played in our efforts to create a statewide network of marine protected areas (MPAs) in California. It was a decade’s worth of work, funded by a large-scale public-private partnership, and the outcome was the largest network of marine protected areas anywhere in the United States. To achieve that result, we organized the most elaborate public process in which I’ve ever been involved, with thousands of stakeholders, government staff, a blue-ribbon task force, and hundreds of public hearings. The role of science in that process was impressive—I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.

Often we see political compromises that violate the scientific bottom line, because policy makers don’t always have the fortitude or the latitude to adopt recommendations based solely on science. But for that process, each region had a team of scientists that evaluated stakeholder proposals against established scientific guidelines, with an unprecedented say in whether those proposals moved forward or not. I’d never seen science have that level of power in policy making before. And that process required a lot of interaction between scientists and stakeholders, culminating in a large conference held in Ventura, focused on the state of the science of marine reserves and MPAs.

COMPASS helped the scientists involved make more effective presentations to a diversity of stakeholders. As a result, the conference in Ventura was the best scientific symposium that I’d ever attended. I saw fishermen and other members of the public grasp the science of MPAs in a way that they never had before. It wasn’t an easy process, often steeped in controversy, but COMPASS helped the scientists make their work accessible to everyone. The resulting MPA network in California was based on the best available science, and we are already starting to see the benefits. This process illustrated to me the importance of COMPASS in helping to bring together communities that are at odds, or don’t communicate well.

What excites you most about COMPASS’s mission and work?

COMPASS’s mission—to help scientists become more influential in the public discourse about the environment—is vital for the future of our planet. COMPASS occupies a key niche—that of a bridging organization, bringing together people and issues that normally wouldn’t connect with each other, or even know how to communicate with each other.

As a lawyer, looking in at the scientific community, I have often observed a single-minded focus on publishing in journals, because that’s what academia demands. As a result, many scientists are very good at presenting to each other but not particularly adept at communicating with non-scientists. COMPASS has catalyzed a turn outward for scientists, talking to society and becoming more influential as a result.

Over the years, I’ve taken a hard look at the appropriate roles for science and law in society and decision-making. My experience suggests that science and law can inform decision-making, but they are seldom dispositive—they seldom carry the day—because there are many other considerations, such as politics and economics, that are more powerful. However, that doesn’t mean science and law are irrelevant; they remain vital to help guide good decisions, and need to be accessible to policy makers.

Science is not just another stakeholder; science occupies a special place in society, and it should—the job of scientists is to tease out the truth, even if you disagree with it or don’t want to follow it. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “Science is true whether you believe it or not!” I really object to the idea that the views of science and scientists are of equivalent value as the belief systems of other stakeholders—that’s a dangerous position.

We’ve seen difficult times for science before, and we’re living through one now, with “alternative facts” and belief systems occupying the center stage of politics. But if we base our decisions on beliefs, not science, we’re not going to make very effective or durable decisions. I can think of many examples of where the conclusions of science were actively opposed, and the only way science-based decisions prevailed was for scientists themselves to stand up for them. COMPASS has helped to secure and bolster the role of scientists in decision-making, and those scientists learned to focus on what we know rather than on uncertainty.

What do you wish you saw scientists doing more of?

My wish is for more scientists to be willing to stand up and communicate their findings in a way that’s accessible to decision makers. In my experience, the better a scientist can communicate their findings and the implications for decision makers, the more effective and influential that scientist is likely to be. I really respect the scientists who want their science to be relevant. I wish more scientists would be part of that group, would stand up and be counted for our planet. It is inconvenient and uncomfortable to communicate news that’s not really welcome, but it’s important for scientists to play that role. Who else will tell the truth, if not scientists?

Once, at a COMPASS meeting, I watched a veteran scientist experience an epiphany. After many years trying to foster better management of threatened marine mammals, he finally came to the conclusion that he had spent far too much time focusing on uncertainty. Scientists are comfortable with the concept of uncertainty because they’re trained how to handle it. But this scientist came to realize that uncertainty is anathema to policy makers. They don’t know how to incorporate it into decisions. So the scientist decided from that day forward that he would focus on articulating what we know for sure, rather than what we aren’t yet certain about. And in that moment, he became far more effective and influential than he’d ever been before!

Image info: Courtesy of Michael Sutton.

#boundaryorganization #oceans #decisions #journalists #SarahSunu

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