COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement
Brooke Smith, Nancy Baron, Chad English, Heather Galindo, Erica Goldman, Karen McLeod, Meghan Miner, Elizabeth Neeley
Citation: Smith B, Baron N, English C, Galindo H, Goldman E, et al. (2013) COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement. PLoS Biol 11(4): e1001552. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001552
Published: April 30, 2013
Copyright: © 2013 Smith et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: COMPASS is funded by a variety of philanthropic and government grants, as well as earned revenue. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation was instrumental in providing seed funding and continues to provide critical ongoing support. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
Abbreviations: EBM, ecosystem-based management
In an era of heightened competition for scarce research positions and funding, the mantra of modern academia—“publish or perish"—continues to intensify . Scientists are under increasing pressure to produce as many publications as possible in “high-impact" journals to raise their profile among peers and influence their discipline. Yet, in recent years, another measure of significance also has been on the rise—one that focuses on a scientist's reach beyond their field and captures societal impact .
More than a decade ago, Jane Lubchenco (a marine ecologist who recently stepped down as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) codified the idea of a “new social contract for science" . She asserted that society expects two outcomes from its investment of public funds in science: “the production of the best possible science and the production of something useful." Lubchenco challenged scientists to consider not only making their research relevant to today's most pressing problems, but also to embrace their responsibility to share their findings. She urged them to invoke “the full power of the scientific enterprise in communicating existing and new understanding to the public and to policymakers, and in helping society move toward sustainability through a better understanding of the consequences of policy action—or inactions."
As humans continue to push the planet toward a rapid and irreversible state shift , this need could not be greater. Yet, finding time to serve society or engage outside of academia can seem impossible. The need to juggle grant writing, teaching, mentoring, and university service, not to mention personal lives, leaves little time for anything else. At a time when policymakers require the expertise of scientists more than ever to solve global challenges, many scientists see the demands to more fully engage with those outside of the ivory tower  as just one of many competing priorities.
Knowing it would take more than a call to action, in 1999 Lubchenco and other like-minded colleagues created a nonprofit organization called COMPASS. COMPASS was founded on the premise that ocean scientists, in particular, had a wealth of knowledge that was not reflected in public understanding or policy and management practices. While exciting marine research and new insights were rapidly emerging, those outside the marine science community knew little about them.
COMPASS' mission has been to bridge that gap. Over the past decade, our approach has evolved, reflecting shifts in the culture and practice of science, dramatic changes in the media landscape, and our experience as we pioneer and try new things. Our successes, our failures, and our challenges have taught us that the most effective science communication requires individual and collective commitment to preparation and practice, as well as peer support for reaching outside academia. Scientists need a network of other scientists to encourage and embolden them in their efforts.
Science communication was once considered primarily a unidirectional conveyance of information, based on the assumption that if scientists and other experts could convey their knowledge to the public, typically through “data dumps," society's problems could be solved (i.e., if you knew what I know, you would believe what I believe). This perspective, “the science deficit model of the public", is explored in a body of communications literature –. We know it does not work .
Communications is not only about speaking in a clear, compelling, and relevant manner, nor simply about promoting findings. Effective communications is an integrated process of understanding your audience and connecting with that audience on their terms. It requires listening as well as talking.
As practitioners within the evolving field of science communication, we've also adapted our approach to one that facilitates dialogue and encourages engagement. We've learned that if scientists want to have impact beyond their disciplines and in the world, communications must be central to their enterprise . This is why academia should reconsider its measures of success and make communication training an integral part of graduate-level education.