What We Talk About When We Talk About Engaging



Cartoon by Carole Levy, commissioned by Andy Hoffman, on redefining academic success to include “stepping out of the ivory tower” to inform important national discussions on topics like climate change and GMOs.

In mid May I had the good fortune to attend a three-day meeting at the University of Michigan that was co-organized by Leopold Leadership Fellow Andy Hoffman on “academic engagement in public and political discourse”. My interest was piqued by an article that Andy circulated in early February (“Isolated Scholars: Making Bricks, Not Shaping Policy”). I’m very glad that I went. Other Leopold Leadership Fellows present were Joe Arvai, David Hart, and Dawn Wright. I think that what transpired at the meeting validates what many of us are doing in a very powerful way, and so I wanted to share some of what I learned and heard.

You might be interested in several articles that highlight various meeting discussion threads: “Presidents Agree Engagement Is Part of Academics’ Obligation to Society,” “What to Expect When You’re Engaging: Tips for Academic Outreach,” “American Universities: Reclaiming Our Role in Society,” and “Can We Talk?”

Below are some of the key points that resonated with me from presentations, panelists and discussions that I tweeted about. I’ve added italicized notes in brackets to help clarify the context of the character-limited tweet. If you’re interested in reading more tweets, all that were tweeted during the meeting can be found on Twitter at #AcadEng. At the end of this post, you’ll find a meeting summary.


  • Engagement is boundary work- a messy space. Need to put thought into how to navigate it. Think about our own personal values sets. [Our value sets inform who we think is credible, e.g., Carl Sagan vs. Dr. Oz. Need to grapple with how we work with each other in terms of being civil and supportive. Need to have stronger collaborative projects with natural and social scientists.]
  • via Susan Collins: should consider working collaboratively in the public/political engagement space rather than being competitive
  • via @DavidScobey need to shift away from intellectual hierarchy @ universities & create an inclusive intellectually generous faculty [“Participate more in inter-institutional and consortial institutions, e.g., Imaging America, and leverage faculty change to undo intellectual hierarchy” David Scobey]
  • RT via @NeilLewisJr “The problem is not the audience, the problem is us.”
  • via @DavidScobey participatory engagement: think abt how to work w/ people w/whom we share a common fate but not common experiences
  • How to broaden diversity of who we’re engaging with? via @RogerPielkeJr Need to be willing to go against the grain of what’s easy [“Engagement is highly politicized and hence polarized- need to not run from the polarization but rather learn how to be at the boundary” Dietram Scheufele. “The goal of politics is not to get everyone to think alike, the goal of politics is to get people who think differently to act alike to get those with differing opinions to know that shared action is possible” Roger Pielke.]
  • via @RogerPielkeJr: Be clear abt your goal for engagement shouldn’t do it to impose our view on others but rather to open up the discussion […to learn more and create a collective vision]
  • via @Nancy Baron: To effectively engage, show your passion- not only the what/how but also the WHY. People will pay attention [‘Those that show their passion are actually the most effective at engagement. “Tell a story, stories are data with a soul” Nancy Baron]
  • via Jane Lubchenco ‘scientists must be bilingual’- to be able to both speak to scientists and to translate this info to the general public [Academic engagement “requires a 2-way communication with society- with transparency and humility” Jane Lubchenco]
  • via H. Pollack: you’ve got to have content, & to coin #LeopoldLP lessons learned, “you’ve got to know thy stuff!” [“Evaluate where you are (wrt engagement) and pivot. Don’t engage with the bad experiences. Cut your losses and move on” and put your energy into engaging with positive experiences. Henry Pollack]

And, last but not least as tweeted by Dawn Wright:

  • via @deepseadawn As one of the peeps in the @LeopoldLP & @COMPASSonline universe, I am SO PROUD of @HoffmanAndy! #AcadEng

Meeting Summary

There were 2 keynotes, one to kick off the meeting, by Jane Lubchenco (Oregon State & Former NOAA Administrator) and the other to close it, by Richard Alley (Penn State). The rest of the time was devoted to a series of panel discussions and breakouts organized with the goal of stimulating a dialogue on specific issues related to academics and public/political engagement, some of which were:

  • Why should academics engage in public & political discourse?
  • What do we mean by public and political engagement?
  • How do we practice public and political engagement?
    • What are some guidelines?
    • How does one pursue an academic career that includes public and political engagement
    • What should be the role of academics in public/political discourse?
  • What are the obstacles for academics with public and political engagement?

The organizational structure and the intentional diversity of career tracks, academic disciplines, and career stages of attendees set the stage for some really interesting and stimulating discussions. Most attendees were from academia but there was also very good representation from boundary organizations, the media and some from the private sector. For those from academia, 43 different disciplines were represented spanning the physical and social sciences, humanities, and professions. Attendees came from the University of Michigan as well as from several colleges and universities from around the country and Canada. Impressive too was that that almost 30% of the academic attendees were PhD students: these are the people who represent the future of academia and so are critical to the dialogue.

A big thanks to Andy Hoffman, Andrew Maynard and the other Michigan Meeting Steering Committee members and organizers for helping to put this all together and for getting such a broad collective of academic wheels turning. A job very well done!!

Summary slide presented by Richard Alley in his MI Meeting keynote presentation ‘Good, Bad and Maybe:  Communicating Scientific Near-Certainties and Deep-Uncertainties to a Non-Scientific Audience’. His presentation exemplified how not only to engage with non-scientists but with scientists and other academics as well.   A very positive keynote- there’s hope!

Summary slide from Richard Alley’s keynote presentation,”‘Good, Bad and Maybe: Communicating Scientific Near-Certainties and Deep-Uncertainties to a Non-Scientific Audience”.

Jennifer Cherrier is an Associate Professor in the School of Environment at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. In August 2015 she will become an Associate Professor in the Earth & Environmental Sciences Department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

Applying Scientific Thinking to Decision-Making


Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team member Karina Nielsen has found that working across the science-policy boundary requires a shift in mindset about one’s role as a scientist.

Note from Pam: Over the next several months, scientists from the Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team will be blogging at OceanSpaces about how science gets linked with decision-making. We’ll be republishing some of their advice and reflections here on LL3.0.

Scientists are inherently curious about how nature works. We enjoy applying creativity and logic in the pursuit of answers to challenging questions. We like thinking hard about how to solve a difficult puzzle, and we enjoy finding a solution. Many of us also hope that the knowledge we generate will ultimately be useful. In our scientific publications, we often point out that there are “policy” or “management” implications associated with the results. And then we think our work as scientists is done. We often assume decision-makers will seek and find the breadcrumbs we’ve left behind to create effective solutions to environmental problems. And we are often dismayed when they don’t.

Building strong bridges across the science-policy boundary involves more than simply pointing decision-makers to the most recent scientific findings. From serving on the Marine Life Protection Act Science Advisory Team to the Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team (OPC-SAT), and participating in focused workshops like a recent one on ecosystem health assessments, I have found working with fellow scientists to help managers and policymakers grapple with complex environmental issues just as challenging and rewarding as doing basic scientific research.

Most recently, I was involved in an OPC-SAT workshop focused on exploring Ocean Health as a Scientific Concept and Management Goal. The idea of ocean (or ecosystem) health as a metaphor for the condition or status of an ecosystem is not new. It has been part of the environmental science lexicon for decades and is now embedded into the environmental policy landscape. Yet despite its common sense and intuitive appeal, there are no generally accepted ways to measure it. Through my work with scientists, managers and policymakers on this and other science policy questions, I’ve learned a few things that other scientists may find useful as they stretch to span the science-policy boundary.

1. Take A New Approach to Engaging with Decision-makers

To span the science policy boundary, we are not being asked to be scientists for the government. Rather, we are being asked to bring our scientific way of thinking to the management and policy table. We have so much to offer beyond our own areas of expertise, because what is useful is not limited to what we each know, or the particular data sets we’ve personally collected and interpreted. It’s also how we’ve been trained to think. In other words, using evidence and applying logic to arrive at sound inferences, including identifying areas of uncertainty can be extremely valuable in helping decision-makers find tractable solutions to problems.

2. Be Willing to Co-develop Projects

Scientists can benefit immensely from collaborating with policymakers and managers. Often we start with a scientific question or problem in our field, design and complete a research project, and then reach out to the decision-makers who we think might benefit from our new findings. What if instead we engaged decision-makers from the beginning?

As scientists, we’re keenly aware of the gaps in our field. But being able to hone in on those gaps that inhibit potentially beneficial and important policy action is not something easily done from the ivory tower, the research lab or the field site. As a result there are often mismatches between what scientists think decision-makers need to know, and the information they are in fact desperately seeking. Identifying the critical knowledge gaps to fill, and/or finding focused, nuanced applications of existing knowledge are important emergent benefits of greater crosstalk and collaboration with decision-makers.

3. Look to Existing Models for Engagement (such as Marine Protected Areas)

I am very encouraged by the Ocean Protection Council’s emerging effort, Healthy Ocean California. The purpose of this effort is to make a long-term reality out of what so many of us have been working toward sustaining for a long time: a healthy, productive ocean. We’re asking the question: Can the concept of ocean health unify us for better science, policy and management?

I believe it can. It starts with California’s network of marine protected areas (MPAs). They’re the backbone of a grand experiment and observational network we can use to understand the consequences and tradeoffs of different policy decisions. The management and monitoring of these MPAs form an important foundation we can use for science-informed decision-making on issues that span management jurisdictions—water quality, fisheries, climate change, and more. The MPAs give us structure for an iterative, adaptive process that will allow us to learn and improve as we go. We can use the network and how it changes over time, under different conditions and in comparison to areas outside the network, as we would an experiment to provide critical tests and contribute to building scientific theory. We built this network, we’ve applied management decisions, we’ve set up monitoring, and now we can start using the results to improve our understanding of ocean health, and how to sustain it.

4. Broaden the Community of Scientists Engaged

We need to keep working to broaden the community of scientists who are active in the policy and management process. We also need to expand the pool of scientific information that scientists and decision-makers can draw from, including academic knowledge, traditional knowledge, citizen science, and local expertise. Examining multiple lines of evidence from different sources to test assumptions and answer questions is an important aspect of scientific thinking.

The boundary between science and decision-making is a fuzzy one. We never have all the information we would like. There is always uncertainty we wish we could reduce. We know that if we only had more time, more resources, and more data we could provide a more robust answer. But managers and policymakers are most often charged with making decisions in the here and now with the information that is currently available. Coming to a conclusion or making a decision in the face of uncertainty can be very uncomfortable for scientists. Inaction can be equally uncomfortable or even impossible for the policymakers and managers charged with tackling environmental challenges. This is the “fuzziness” that can make boundary-spanning feel uncomfortable or even a little scary. But to make science and scientific thinking useful and accessible to decision-makers, to have impact, to actually have science-informed policy, or at least to have science at the table when decisions are being made, we must be willing to stretch outside our traditional disciplinary comfort zones.

As they say sometimes, “If you’re not a little bit uncomfortable, you’re not growing.” It’s not just about ecology, or climate science, or fisheries; and it’s not about being 100% certain about our conclusions before we help inform policy. It’s about to bringing a diversity of scientists, scientific information and scientific disciplines together to work adaptively and iteratively with decision-makers to find the best possible answers to the questions we have about California’s ocean health, something that is important to everyone.

Other blogs in the “Perspectives from the OPC-SAT” series: Introduction to the Series; and Part I: Gone with the Wind? What climate-driven changes in wind intensity means for CA’s Ocean Health.

Karina J. Nielsen is a professor of biology and director of the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies at San Francisco State University.

Designing the Destination: 2 Hours to a Vision and Mission for Our Center


Pitch and Post worked well for generating the vision and mission for our new food systems center.

In my last post, I described how I used Think-Pair-Share in a 2-hour meeting to build trust and momentum among faculty who are creating a center on food systems at Arizona State University. In our second meeting (also 2 hours) we modified several tools introduced by Barefoot at the Leopold Leadership training last June to create vision and mission statements. Here’s what we did.

Meeting 2: Creating a collaboration space to draft vision and mission statements

At Meeting 2 we had some of the same faculty (veterans from Meeting 1) and a group of faculty who could not attend the initial meeting (rookies). In hindsight it would have been nice to redo the Think-Pair-Share exercise by pairing veterans and rookies and having the veterans “swear in” the rookies to the group. Note to self for next time.

The goal of Meeting 2 was to brainstorm a vision, and if time permitted, a mission for the center. To brainstorm the vision statement, we used a version of “Pitch and Post.” We divided the large group into subgroups of four and tasked each one to come up with a two-sentence vision statement for the food systems center. Each subgroup appointed a delegate who pitched the idea to the larger group. The other participants wrote their reactions on post-its and posted them on the written (paper or tablet) vision statement. Each subgroup took the feedback, synthesized it, and redrafted their vision statements. We then reran the Pitch and Post a second time. In the end we derived three very solid vision statements.

After this vision exercise, I charged the group with brainstorming a mission that would achieve the vision. We did this as a snowball activity. Pairs discussed and synthesized their top three activities that would achieve the center mission. These ranged from more organization to writing collaborative research proposals to funding conferences led by graduate students to changing the metrics for P&T evaluation to rewarding engagement and the translation of research into action. The pairs then paired up into groups of four and honed and culled until they had a set of their top three activities. Then we did this as a large group. In the end I left the meeting with a short list of top 12 most desired activities for the food systems center.

By the end, I had new insights about managing large faculty meetings.

Most important do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t be afraid to deviate from the script: Think-Pair-Share and other Barefoot activities can be mixed and matched, co-opted for other purposes, and redesigned.
  • Make room for movement: Switch between pairs and groups of four midway through the meeting, or better, make the group reorganize into 2-3 different groups of four to discuss focus questions. Getting up and moving keeps interest levels up.
  • Appoint assistant coaches to help design and execute the meetings: The coaches were valuable notetakers and guidance counselors to faculty through the meeting process. Their participation led to better outcomes.
  • Don’t forget the food: Eating together builds community. Design these sorts of meetings at lunchtime and feed participants well.
  • Don’t fear execution imprecision: The second round of Pitch and Post in Meeting 2 was actually a complete accident (unplanned) but hitting the clutch and shifting gears on the fly paid off.
  • Don’t try to do too many games in one meeting: Explaining game rules and getting participants in the groove takes precious time and may ultimately get in the way of getting work done.
  • Don’t go in blind: Have a ballpark idea of your desired outcome — e.g., what that vision and mission should look like. Design your destination, be flexible, and prepare to listen in order to lead more effectively.

Share your best tips for leading faculty meetings in the comments below.

John Sabo, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is Associate Professor in the School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Director of Research Development at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter @jlsaboASU.

An Environmental Scientist’s Confession: Why I Burn Fossil Fuel

My research vessel (Photo by Sarah Bagby)

My research vessel has a 267,000-gallon fuel tank (photo by Sarah Bagby)

Several years ago, my sister created a website, carbonconfessor.com. I was delighted.  Finally, a friendly place where I could seek absolution for my carbon sins! She even had a phone-in option. I was excited because I had long lived with the guilt of a double life. In my daily existence I commuted by bike, taught university courses about climate change, and interrogated bacteria that produce and consume greenhouse gases. But when away from my daily life I binge-burned. I burned diesel in oversized rental trucks, jet fuel when I traveled to conferences, and on special occasions I burned Bunker fuel oil when I directed large oceanographic vessels on tortuous paths through the high seas. Have you ever pumped fuel into a 267,000-gallon tank? It stings more than a little.

A certain “fair and balanced” news outlet has pointed to hypocrisy such as mine as evidence that climate change is not a serious concern. If it were, surely we highlighter-green-liberal-academic-environmentalist-science-leader-types would never tempt global annihilation by burning that black juice of death! But I do, and that makes me a hypocrite. If you are among the 50% of the US population looking for validation of your opinion that climate change is not a concern, then read no further – you have my admission of hypocrisy as ammunition. But if you are interested in getting to the bottom of this, let’s dialog.

Human behavior can be baffling, but the explanation for my hypocrisy seems rather simple: I am a scientist who is a product of a modern society. Like everyone else, I depend on the many benefits of fossil carbon – transportation, electricity, heat, and plastics – to fulfill my responsibilities as a member of society.

This realization struck me unexpectedly a few years back. I was leading a fuel-hungry expedition off the California coast when devastating news came that a crew-member’s mother had suffered a massive stroke and had only hours to live. I faced a decision – do we cease operation and drop him off at port for the chance that he might say a final goodbye to his mother? Yes, this was a no-brainer. How about speed – do we burn an extra 500 gallons of fuel to get him to port an hour earlier in hopes that he might catch a flight that same night? Of all the considerations that crossed my mind, carbon footprint was not one of them, and we put the pedal to the metal. Like everyone else in the decision chain, I was guided by one thing: doing everything we could do help our crew member get home as fast as possible.

What this experience forced me to recognize is that as leaders we sometimes need to separate our humanity from our knowledge. What I know through study is that our collective actions are continuing to change Earth’s environment in a way this is likely to cause massive upheaval and strife for future generations. In the face of tragedy it was easy to set aside this long-term environmental concern. But in truth it is just as easy to set aside environmental concern in the face of more mundane priorities like getting to work on time. So I pose these questions to the ether of LL 3.0: as environmental leaders, where do we draw the line between our actions and our goals? How about convenience and sacrifice?  I’m not suggesting that anyone boycott their upcoming trip to Wisconsin or tear apart their driver’s license, but I am curious how others maneuver their way through this issue.

I am sorry to finish by announcing that I don’t know exactly where the grey area ends. Some interesting guidance can be found here, and you can calculate your carbon footprint here. And if the results of that exercise cause you foreboding, don’t worry, I can help fast-track your absolution request.

David Valentine, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is professor of Earth Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Read more about his research here.

The “Secret Sauce” of Leadership Development: Interview with Jon Foley

Jon Foley (Photo by Josh Kohanek)

Jon Foley (Photo by Josh Kohanek)

Note from Kate: I recently interviewed Jon Foley, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE), about what academics need to become effective environmental leaders. In his development as a leader, working with networks was key. He also talked about the need for training, which provides skills and “moral encouragement.” Here’s what he had to say:

KK: Can you describe a specific moment or experience when you really felt like you were making a difference as a leader?

JF: That’s a tough one. I’m not sure you’ll never really know. And you’re never done, of course.

I feel that you go through career transitions. Initially, your sole focus is to do the science your peers respect. That’s great; and when you do the science your peers respect and the public notices, that’s really great. When you do the science that’s respected by your peers, the public notices, and then thought leaders are asking your for help, that’s the third level that you reach. That’s been very rewarding — and intellectually, incredibly stimulating.

If you put yourself in a position of leadership and visibility, you have to learn to have a thicker skin, because you’ll be exposed to more criticism. It’s a different world where you can get a few more bruises, but the rewards are so much greater than that. Don’t stress out about it; just realize that you can get a little bit beat up.

KK: You’ve described these levels of career development. From the outside, it looks like you just made your way up them. How did you figure out how to do that?

JF: I think we’re all experimenting in our own ways. That’s where this network of people working on leadership issues that Leopold helped create has been so incredibly powerful. We got these crash courses on communications and media relations, and those were really helpful. It also introduced us to 19 other crazy people who were trying to do the same thing, and that was even more valuable. Those two weeks you’re together, doing this course, you become fast friends. That was the most important two weeks of my professional life — and of my life. Probably second only to the birth of my children, in terms of the influence it’s had on my life and career. I am still incredibly grateful and indebted to the Leopold program for kicking off things.

But is there a simple how-to guide? No. I think that’s where we’re struggling, because we‘re trying to figure out how to “train the trainer” and replicate that experience for younger people when they are in school.

KK: Why do you think developing the next generation of leaders is important? How do you think it’s different and similar to regular graduate education?

JF: The Boreas Program borrows a lot of inspiration from the Leopold Program in the sense that there are elements of preparation, like workshops, preparing you to gain specific skills. Skills preparation lays the groundwork. The secret sauce that Leopold had, and I think Boreas has, is that it also gives you the moral encouragement to go out and try these things.

That’s where it’s different than regular graduate training. But there’s a similarity, too. Let’s say you get a PhD in chemistry. You’re not going to have your committee members beside you for the rest of your life. Eventually, you have to go out on your own. A good graduate program gives you the tools for how think about these things and encourages you to innovate your own path. I think that’s where Leopold and Boreas try to do the same thing. The skills are not as obvious sometimes, and they don’t fit as neatly into a traditional disciplinary rubric. But they are nevertheless rigorous and important.

KK: If you’re thinking about your own moral encouragement, what advice do you have for aspiring world-changers?

JF: I try to remember my inner 13- or 14-year-old. The person who was really passionate about science, wanting to go save the world, or do something great. The person who got up and watched Carl Sagan and wanted to be one of the first astronauts to Mars. That was me as a kid. I think we lose sight of that through all those dissertation chapters, committee meetings, prelims, defenses. Being a post-doc, getting your work published, writing proposals — it’s a pretty demoralizing, hard life in some ways. A lot of the creativity and spark can be beaten out of you if you let it. My first advice would be don’t let it. Keep that inner spark. Let that be your moral compass. That should be guiding your career more than a path to getting tenure. We’re not in the business of getting tenure. We should be in the business of changing the world. And if you change the world, well, you do good scholarship.

The final thing is that for most people right now, it’s a choice to do this kind of more public service science. Thankfully, it’s become a lot easier to do that over the last decade or two. Personally, I don’t think that’s even far enough. I don’t think this should be optional. It should be the way we do things.

If we start to think carefully about the kind of science we should be doing, and the greatest public good, it doesn’t just mean creating a patent, or some new miracle drug or technical solution. What it is that we as a civilization need to know in the long-term? That could be very long-term investments in basic research, but it is also being thoughtful about our social compact. Being accountable to our fellow human beings is not a bad thing at all. All we are doing is reinventing what we knew in the late 19th century, of the land grant, and the Morril Act, things that a lot of us at state universities know about. I hope this kind of training and leadership become the norm. Maybe that will slowly happen over the next decade. That would be very, very cool.


Kate Knuth, Program Director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She is pursuing a PhD in conservation biology. You can follow the Boreas Leadership Program and Kate on Twitter, @BoreasIonE and @KateKnuth.