The Inspiration—And Frustration—Of Change
Last week, I boarded a plane at Washington, DC’s Reagan National Airport headed home to Portland, OR. I sank into my seat, rested my head against the window, and closed my eyes. But as soon as we reached cruising altitude, I couldn’t help but open up my laptop. I had so much I wanted to share with my colleagues and teammates. I was equal parts exhausted and motivated after spending two days at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) participating in the first gathering of a new Roundtable called “Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect. But, I was thrilled that NAS was taking this on given the enthusiasm and controversy surrounding the recent buzz about scientists engaging. Some conversations are about ‘why bother’ engaging. Others on how to engage. And others on initiatives to support better engagement through education reform (like NIH’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) or NSF’s Graduate Education Challenge). Taken together, there’s a lot of momentum out there.
Inspiration doesn’t come easy. Photo courtesy of the Gerald W. Williams collection via Flickr. What transpired at NAS exceeded my expectations. It wasn’t so much the content of our still-nascent discussions, as it was the energy in the room. There was focused interest, probing questions, heaps of knowledge and experience, curiosity, and passion. And yes, some caution, with a healthy dose of reality, too. I got home, tired but invigorated, at about 1:00 am, and dozed off to sleep with visions of scientists engaging dancing in my head. Then, my 5:30 am alarm clock (aka my 2 year old daughter) went off. I hit snooze, but the alarm went off again 15 minutes later (aka my 4 year old daughter). After a couple hours of pancakes and princesses, I headed into the office—back to the real world of science communication.
That day, I spoke with funders that champion us (thank you!), funders that weren’t quite the right fit (bummer), and talked to the COMPASS team about great funding opportunities—as well as constraints. By 5 pm, as I headed home to get dinner on the table, my inspiration had been tempered by reality. Science communication is hard to fund. It’s difficult to balance the pace of scientific discovery with the pace of communication opportunities. And, we all have lives, family, and other commitments. Working in science communication can actually be really frustrating. This blend of inspiration and frustration—that I, and everyone in these conversations, seem to have —is a symptom of change. Change is good. Change is hard. Change takes time. Here’s what we know: We want academic culture and funding structures to be more supportive of scientists engaging. But here’s what we struggle with: How to shift the academic culture. How to fund mechanisms that help connect science to society. How to help scientists find more time. We’re all feeling frustrated, but as counterintuitive as this sounds—that’s what gives me hope. It is a sign that change is coming.
What can you (realistically) do as a scientist to engage while systemic change is still in the making? How can you channel your frustration into inspiration….and do it in the time you do have? Have 10 min? Know that conversations and efforts are underway to think about and work on long-term change (I admit to wishing there were more of them and that they were better funded). And know that efforts like the NAS Roundtable or the #GradSciComm effort we’re convening are drawing a ton of energy and inspiration. Don’t have time to fly to a meeting and spend a few days joining these conversations? We still need to hear from you. Send me an email—or address this question in a comment on the post below: What does a “changed” world, in which you and/or your science are supported to engage with society, look like to you?
Have a couple hours this year? Support those that are willing and able to engage beyond their peers. And even better, support those that are willing and need to become able. Give your colleagues who are escaping from the ivory tower a pat on the back. Support them in your department meetings when they discuss taking time to share their science in non-traditional ways. Comment online—here or anywhere else you browse these conversations.
Have more than a couple hours? Ready to take a deeper dive? Let’s talk. We at COMPASS love helping those of you who can and will take the time sharpen your communication skills. We’ll help connect you to people to whom your science is relevant. We need as many of you doing this as is feasible. You will still have to invest time (hours, days, maybe even weeks), but we’ll make it worth your while. Plug in where you can in a way that works for you, and let’s all try to keep our inspiration greater than our frustration as we weather, navigate, and work towards these changes. Brooke Smith was Executive Director at COMPASS from 2004-2016. This post was transferred from its original location at www.compassonline.org to www.COMPASSscicomm.org, August 2017.