Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Beyond the buzz: change-making with science

I recently wrote a post about how to "generate buzz" about research where I mentioned that, in my mind anyway, attention-getting should not be conflated with actual change-making. There are lots of ways of looking at change-making, and here I am mostly talking about broad-scale, societal, and, most likely, policy change. What this kind of change-making really comes down to for me is working with other people. That is why I started to blog to begin with, and why I focus so much on the concept of relatedness - here focused on deepening capacity as a scientist or practitioner to participate in change-making efforts.

Let me give one example that is going to be necessarily vague. I worked for several years for a large non-profit organization that strives to do science-based environmental policy work. I was a staff scientist, and one of my first projects was working with a stellar group of colleagues advocating for the conservation of large, charismatic megafauna. One of the first things we decided to do was set up a science advisory committee for the campaign. That kind of thing had not been done in the organization before, but I'd had a lot of experience with the pros and cons of committees of scientists in particular, so we were really careful about getting a solid group with good chemistry amongst them together (at the sacrifice of diversity I should probably add).

Part of this was a strategic decision to cultivate relationships between scientists and our staff, who served as a conduit to the decision-making communities in multiple countries throughout the world and at major intergovernmental policy bodies. After about a year of working together, a concept for a really high impact research project came about. To get the project done, our staff worked pretty hard at finding ways to get the scientists together with space to work, and to do it in a timely way. We also worked closely with them and amongst ourselves to figure out how best to strategically communicate the results of the research. There were about seven scientists from different institutions, and the team working on this just from our end was at least as large. Policy specialists, designers, communications folks that included media relations, and me - everybody's skills were valuable and complementary. This was a large, moving beast of a project that took a tremendous amount of work over a couple of years.

And, in the end, it was well worth it as not only did we focus a lot of attention on the issue, the results of this project were undoubtedly key in a major international conservation policy being put into place. Sure, there were a lot of other variables and context for the decision, and tons of people involved beyond our project for sure, but in this particular case we can pretty safely say that the research itself and how it was used was a key part of change-making. And, it was incredible both in that it worked, and in how much work on the part of so many people working together went into making it happen. None of it would have happened without the other pieces. This experience and others like it have convinced me that the science community, just like any other community, cannot make large-scale change happen without intentional, focused, collaborative relationships.

So, what does that mean for scientists and science practice? To me it means that the value of individual relational capacity cannot be overstated - relationships need a lot of care and feeding. Having expertise in a scientific discipline and strong communication skills are absolutely necessary and will carry you far, but without the social and emotional capacity to build and maintain effective, productive relationships, the kind of change most of us want to participate in will remain elusive.

Many of you probably already have strong relational skills, after all, we move through the world in relationship with others. And, as we can all probably attest to from those experiences, there is always more to learn. Luckily, there are a lot of resources out there if you're willing to seek them out. I've already written about some of them - listening, contemplation, working with conflict, and normalizing emotions, including grief. These are core parts of developing deeper relational capacities, and I will expand on them in a future post.

Related posts:


  1. Faith,
    Great post. I need to come back and read your blog more often.
    This short discussion did make me wonder: you say that it took a team of about a baker's dozen to pull of this project that achieved a meaningful level of change - clearly you already understood the value of collaboration and iterative solutions. My question is - in the process did you see the other members gain a better understanding of the need for a collaborative and multifaceted structure for achieving meaningful impact? Or, did some of the component parts just deliver their parts and are now involved in some other meaningful project delivering similar components. This also raises the issue of whether cogs are important. Specialist cogs that is, with people like you who can pull outputs together in a holistic synthesis...before I descend into complete logorrhea, I will sign off, but thanks again for keeping this blog going. I think it is really valuable.

    1. Thanks MV, for reading and for the question. It's an interesting one. I would say that, yes, everybody involved was there because they *already* got the value of the collaboration. But, that was partly because we'd worked together on smaller projects or built trusting relationships in other ways - part of the "work" I described happening over a couple years was about intentionally creating the collaborative. And, I think every time people are a part of a success like this, they want more. My hope in writing about it is to "normalize" the way that these things happen, which is not accidentally.

      And, yes, for sure, some of the functions of this kind of work could be called "cogs" - irreplaceable, creative, smart-as-hell cogs. I do think those are absolutely crucial roles - the folks that develop and fund projects, that connect people and ideas, that understand the context of the work, that know about opportunities for movement... I could go on.

      I hope this makes some sense. And, please come back to visit - it's so helpful to have voices like yours here. It's such a challenge to connect with the community that I know is out there as so many folks that do this kind of work don't often have a big online presence.