Science and Community Engagement: an Interview with Lou Woodley

Photo credit: Niall Kennedy. Image retrieved via Flickr and shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.
Photo credit: Niall Kennedy. Image retrieved via Flickr and shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

On Nov. 3, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) announced a new fellowship program focused on community engagement in the science community. This makes me curious.

The new venture, called the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows program, was launched with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The goal, according to a AAAS news release, is to “professionalize and institutionalize the role of community engagement managers in the scientific community” and “provide training and professional development for up to 18 fellows.”

But what does AAAS mean by “community engagement”? Why is it important to researchers? How can a small class of fellows make a difference? And what will the fellowship actually entail?

To answer these questions, I reached out to Lou Woodley, who is the program director for the new fellowship. I also asked her about Trellis, an online science communication platform being developed by AAAS. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the folks who has had a chance to serve as a beta tester for Trellis.)

Communication Breakdown: Before asking about the new fellowship or Trellis, I want to give you a chance to introduce yourself to readers. What’s your background? Did you train as a scientist?

Lou Woodley. Photo courtesy of Lou Woodley.
Lou Woodley. Photo courtesy of Lou Woodley.

Lou Woodley: Hello everyone – and thanks, Matt for the invite to talk about this new program! Yes, I am a scientist by training. I did my undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences at Cambridge University – specializing in Biochemistry in my final year. I then went on to get both an MSci and MPhil in gene expression – studying at places like the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg and the CRG in Barcelona, before returning to Cambridge. I never did get my PhD though – for various reasons I ended up in science communication instead.

CB: When did your focus switch from science to science communication? What triggered that switch?

Woodley: While I was back in Cambridge, working towards my PhD, I co-founded BlueSci, the first student science magazine in the UK. I then ended up serving as Managing Editor for 2.5 years – loving everything about the entrepreneurial, 360 degree role. One day I could be working on our style guidelines, the next devising a subscriptions program, and a week later I could be reviewing submissions for the next issue.

This really reinforced that a life at the bench was not for me and I was happy to swop my lab coat for a laptop when an opportunity arose to work at Nature Publishing Group.

CB: You worked for Nature Publishing Group for several years. What was your role there, and how did it change over time? Is that where you became interested in community engagement?

Woodley: When I started at NPG I was working in an experimental department called Web Publishing where we were building some of the very first online tools for scientists – things like Connotea, Nature Network, the nature.com blogs aggregator, and even remote conferencing and educational activities in the Second Life virtual environment.  While none of those original products survived, the people I was working with – Euan Adie (CEO at Altmetric.com), Alf Eaton (PeerJ) and Ian Mulvany (CTO at eLife) have all gone on to do exciting things in the technical side of science publishing, and I consider myself very lucky to have been part of that group from the early days.

I was originally brought in to NPG as a (paid) intern to help consider which of those somewhat experimental tools might become actual products. That led me to become the community manager for Nature Network, the very first social networking site for scientists, as well as to get plenty of product management experience working with the developers. Then, as social media took off, I founded and chaired NPG’s social media working group, and also helped to bring all of our staff blogs together on a single WordPress site.

The other thing I was heavily involved with in my time at NPG was the annual two-day event, Science Online London – which was later re-branded to SpotOn London. This was a great opportunity to bring together everyone interested in the future of publishing – whether from a technical, policy or communications perspective, and it’s one of the things I’ve most enjoyed in my career so far. I also founded a monthly spin-off from the London event in NYC called SoNYC.

CB: The new fellowship program is going to be open to people who are already community engagement managers and to people who are interested in entering the field. Do many scientific organizations already have community engagement managers? Do they go by other titles?

Woodley: This is a great question. One of our current hypotheses is that community engagement managers within the scientific community are rarely called that. They might be called online engagement managers, membership officers, research coordinators, or many other titles! So the first thing we’re going to do is a landscape survey of scientific societies and organizations to find out how many of these roles are out there.

We’re particularly interested in where they sit within an organization (marketing, membership, communications, etc.) the seniority of the position, and to whom they report. This will help us to understand the status quo, and also to consider what would be valuable training to provide in a community engagement curriculum.

One of the outcomes that we hope to see from the program is an increasing professionalization of the role of engagement managers. That might include more professional development and peer support for them, as well as considering how to demonstrate the value of the role to organizations and funders.

CB: When I think of “community engagement,” I think of someone who cultivates a positive relationship between an institution and its surrounding community – i.e., the people who are geographically close to a research institution. But that doesn’t seem to be what you’re talking about when you refer to community engagement. So…what is community engagement? How is it defined in the context of the AAAS program? Is it something done primarily online? Does it involve networking, or is it solely done within an existing working group?

Woodley: It’s a tricky one to define! Part of the challenge is that the “engagement” could be taking place in a variety of different ways and groups.

Example 1: a big research grant that spans five different research institutions or a handful of different stakeholder groups. In that case, the community engagement person (probably called a Program Manager) might select some online tools so that they can work together, schedule the occasional face-to-face meeting, help new students connect with their peers working at the other institutions and so on.

Example 2: a scientific society where a Membership Officer is working to provide online careers webinars and other work-related advice and discussion to connect members who may not already know one another. This might expand to setting up mentoring programs or Q&As or various other ways to join the dots between people and projects that may not otherwise have happened. This is more of an online community manager role.

There are various other examples. In most cases they probably do involve some element of working online, but some may not. The group may be pre-existing or it could be brand new.

Sorry if it’s a bit vague – part of what we want to do with a landscape survey is get a much clearer picture of just how many of these folks are out there. Judging by the responses we’ve had to the announcement there’s a wide variety of these roles – and in the support they’re currently getting.

CB: Why is community engagement important to science? Or, to put it another way, how can community engagement help researchers?

Woodley: Science is becoming increasingly complex and collaborative, with larger groups working together over longer periods of time. The community engagement manager in this context is the person who can help establish connections between people working on the project, and who can organize the sharing of information that is critical to the long-term success of the community or collaboration.

There’s a popular metaphor among community managers that what we do is very much like playing host at an event making sure everything runs smoothly. That means inviting interesting people in the first place, introducing people to one another, starting conversations, keeping things to a schedule (where appropriate) and trouble-shooting any problems. To extend the metaphor, the community manager can even get technical and ensure that the décor is right and that everyone is comfortable with the equipment being used (and arrange for it to be upgraded when it gets old).

Applying this to science, different projects will have a different emphasis on each of these tasks – some projects will require online tools and need someone to help ensure their adoption, another project will require more content creation and seeding of conversations in a particular subject area. But in all cases, the engagement person acts to facilitate the conversations or collaborations.

CB: Are there other reasons for research institutions or organizations to support professional community engagement managers? Given the paucity of available research funding, what makes hiring a community engagement manager a worthwhile investment?

Woodley: Right now, much of what a community engagement manager does is seen as “shadow work” – it often takes place behind the scenes and it’s seen as supplemental to the central activities of a project, rather than crucial for its success. But often it’s the community engagement manager who spots the connections between people or tasks and coordinates the subsequent activities.

What we’re keen to explore with the fellows program is how to demonstrate the value that having a community engagement person can bring to a scientific society, to a research institution, or to a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional collaboration. Some of the participating host organizations may never have had anyone formally in this role before and their feedback will be crucial to understanding current attitudes towards the role and ways to assess its value.

CB: For people interested in getting into the field, what sort of skills do they need to be successful?

Woodley: This is something we’re hoping to explore with the fellows to hone an answer that is specific to the scientific community. For example, do you need to be a trained scientist to be a good scientific community manager? And if so, do you need a PhD? What about editorial training or proficiency with online tools, or even programming skills? Can one person ever have the entire range of these skills – and if so, what path did they take to acquire them?

In the meantime, I find this framework by the Community Roundtable a useful guide. It states that general Community Managers need skills in five core areas, each of which can be further broken down. The five core skill areas are: engagement, strategic, business, content and technical.

I suspect most people associate community management with the engagement and content skills, but not necessarily with the others, and so I’m keen to see what’s actually important in the existing scientific community management roles.

CB: What will the fellowship program actually look like? Will fellows be expected to relocate for a year, or will training and development courses be conducted primarily online? Will fellows have to take a leave of absence from their day jobs?

Woodley: The idea is that roughly half of the fellows will be in existing positions – and so no leave of absence or relocation would be required. For the other half of the cohort, we’ll be looking to place them within partner organizations, wherever those may be located. It’s likely that in this pilot year of the program many will be in Washington, DC – but I hope that if the pilot is a success we can expand to a larger and fully international class group in future years.

In terms of what the program will look like, the finer details are yet to be worked out. What we do know is that after carrying out the landscape survey we’ll put together a curriculum and then deliver that during an intensive week at the start of the program. We’ll bring all of the fellows together in DC to do so. The fellows will then go out to their respective organizations to carry out their roles, checking in with us throughout the year. We’ll be providing shorter mid-year and end-of-year in-person meetings, as well as monthly online webinars to continue the skill-sharing of the initial week.

My hope is that this will be a very collaborative experience from start to finish – I’d like to see diverse input into the curriculum and then for the Fellows to take the lead on what they need from their monthly top-up sessions. We also plan to disseminate what we find along the way.

CB: How can a class of 18 fellows make meaningful progress toward the goal of professionalizing and institutionalizing the role of community engagement managers in the sciences?

Woodley: One of the aims of the program is to professionalize the role of community engagement folks within the scientific community so that the role is recognized as a career in its own right and not an after-thought when planning a project.

While the fellows are going to be key for providing 18 examples of what becomes possible when you have a community engagement person on a project, what will also help our aim is having data from the landscape survey, and curriculum materials that can be reused.

Why’s the survey data important? The Community Roundtable has been producing an annual “State of Community Management” report for some years now. While it isn’t science-specific, it does show some interesting trends. Namely, that when this role first appeared, community engagement professionals were somewhat isolated individuals within organizations. Now they are increasingly embedded within teams, are given community-specific budgets, and report to more senior levels – showing that the role is taken increasingly more seriously.

Finally, what we’re seeing with general community management is that there’s now a clear 4-tier hierarchy or career path emerging for the field – from community specialist up to director of community.

While we may not expect all of these findings to be directly mirrored in the scientific community, we might start seeing a line item for community engagement in large, multi-institutional grants over the next few years.

CB: I know recruitment for the inaugural class of fellows will begin in 2016. How can interested parties make sure they find out about how and when to submit an application for the program? Or will fellows be selected by invitation?

Woodley: Once we get started, we’ll be writing regularly about the program – including how to apply – on the Trellis blog, so I’d advise anyone interested to keep an eye on that. You can also email: communityfellows@aaas.org with any questions and request to be added to our mailing list.

CB: The Nov. 3 release from AAAS also mentions Trellis, where you are (of course) the community engagement director. How would you describe Trellis? What distinguishes it from being a “Facebook for scientists”?

Woodley: Trellis is a communication and collaboration platform for the scientific community. It allows groups of any size to come together to share documents, start discussions, create calendar events, or message one another.

Plus you can control the visibility of your group and construct multiple groups into a hierarchy, if you wish. That means that you can balance public and private group activities, behind the scenes planning with dissemination and discussion – all in one place.

I’m excited to see the many different ways this is going to be used – from scientific societies using it to engage more actively online with their membership to communities of interest gathering around topics such as women in science or career transitions.

CB: The release says that Trellis launched in December 2014. But my understanding is that it’s still open to only a fairly small group of users. Where are things in the development process?

Woodley: Trellis is currently in a closed beta period – which means access is by invitation only (though you can register your interest at trelliscience.com if you’d like to get on board early). This is a deliberate decision to keep things manageable while we build out the full feature list, and iron out any kinks based on the feedback of our beta users.

For the short term, we’re focusing on bringing existing groups on board – we simply don’t have the discoverability tools in place yet for you to get the most out of the site as a curious individual. However, as things progress after the new year, we’ll begin opening the site up more widely.

CB: Will anyone be able to join Trellis, or will they have to have some sort of link to the science community? If there needs to be a tie to the science community, how can you verify/enforce that?

Woodley: Trellis will ultimately be open to anyone within the scientific community – no need to be a AAAS member to use the site. That might include scientific researchers, but could equally be STEM education specialists, science policy folks or those working in science communication.

We’ve talked a lot about how to define where the edges of the halo of the scientific community extend to – and how to verify that. From a technical perspective it’s going to involve multiple approaches that will need to balance allowing you to get started quickly against making sure that you’re really the intended audience for the site.

CB: What is the short-term goal for Trellis? I.e., what does success look like for Trellis in the first year or two?

Woodley: The first couple of years for Trellis are really about proof of concept – we need to finish building the core features (which is an ambitious amount of work!) and to make sure that it’s fulfilling the communication and collaboration needs of our members.

We also will be creating APIs so that, as the core community of users grows, we can start integrating with other services that we won’t be building ourselves – whether that’s complex authoring tools such as Overleaf, data storage solutions, or reference management software.

Alongside that – and this is where the Sloan grant fits in perfectly – we’re really keen to grow and support the role of the group admins on Trellis. Those are the folks who will be carrying out the community engagement role for their own projects on Trellis. I hope that we’ll be able to feed back what we learn from the community engagement fellows program directly to these admins. As far as I know, no other scientific platform has placed such emphasis on the role of community builders and it’s one of the reasons I’m particularly excited about the project.

CB: What about the long-term – say, after 10 years?

Woodley: I’m certainly not brave enough to predict what the world will look like in 10 years – especially given my own job didn’t exist 5 years ago!

What I will say though is that our dependence on online communication is unlikely to diminish. And as science – and communicating about science – becomes increasingly collaborative, international and open, so the infrastructure and facilitators responsible for carrying it out will become increasingly important.  I hope Trellis – and the community engagement fellows program – will play a big part in that.

CB: Last question – is there one piece of advice that you think would be especially useful for veteran or aspiring community engagement managers?

Woodley: Ask yourself honestly where you derive your professional energy and enjoyment from. If you need consistent public recognition and predictable routine, this probably isn’t the role for you. If, however, you get a buzz from facilitating interactions between smart people, constantly learning new things and switching between tasks, plus you don’t mind that you never have two identical days in a row – then it’s the best job in the world!

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2 thoughts on “Science and Community Engagement: an Interview with Lou Woodley

  1. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Morsels For The Mind – 20/11/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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