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Spring/Summer 2015 Vol. 15 Number 1

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Ambassadors for Science and Engineering

Pittsburgh Program Brings Expertise and Evidence to Local Decision Making

Participants in the Academies' Science & Engineering Ambassadors program, photos by Sara Frueh Participants in the Academies' Science & Engineering Ambassadors program, photos by Sara Frueh Participants in the Academies' Science & Engineering Ambassadors program, photos by Sara Frueh

The Academies have a long history of offering evidence-based advice to policymakers on a national level, but for the past three years, they have been piloting a new way to help scientists and engineers connect with policymakers and other opinion leaders at the local level. The Science & Engineering Ambassadors program has enlisted experts in Pittsburgh to reach out to local opinion leaders and help them understand energy issues, with the goal of informing community decision making. The broader hope is to develop a model that can work in a variety of communities around a range of topics.

Selected in 2011 from a group of 15 cities, Pittsburgh had the right raw ingredients for the pilot site. It offers the benefits of both a big and a small city, says Barbara Granito, a Pittsburgh resident and former Wall Street Journal editor who chairs the program's advisory board and serves as executive adviser. "People know one another, and because of that, they're inclined to collaborate. You also have world-class research labs and universities." The city is also in the middle of a huge transformation. "They are successfully reinventing themselves from an old steel and coal economy to a new one based on medicine, technology, research, advanced manufacturing, and sustainable development," says Granito. "There is high local pride. The idea of inventing a national model is very appealing to Pittsburgh."


The program is beginning with a focus on one topic: energy. In 2012, 26 ambassadors -- all of them energy experts in the Pittsburgh community -- were selected to participate in the program. Half were senior-level scientists and engineers, and each was invited to bring a younger colleague or graduate student into the program. The senior-level ambassadors, representing academia, industry, and government, were carefully vetted for their professional reputations, proven interest in outreach, and natural aptitude and enthusiasm for communication.

Reaching Unique Audiences
Through the program, the ambassadors have engaged several types of audiences, all with the goal of increasing knowledge about energy. One audience is students; the program worked with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University to create a joint honors class that offered undergraduates the chance to learn about both energy and science communication. The ambassadors have also led multiple events for general audiences, such as a three-session series on energy and climate that engaged citizens last fall.

But the program's primary audience is more focused -- and one that not many programs attempt to reach, says Jessica Sickler, an external evaluator who has followed the program from its beginnings. "What makes it unique is that it's trying to reach community decision makers. The goal is to bring science to bear to influence decisions."

Over the fall and winter of 2014-2015, for example, the program worked with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development to create the Grid Academy, a four-session series of presentations and discussions to help local leaders learn more about the electrical grid -- how it works, its economic aspects, the threats it faces, and its possible future. A group of more than two dozen local policymakers and business and nonprofit leaders attended the sessions. As a follow-up, the Allegheny Conference will work with these leaders to produce a white paper on issues facing the region's electrical grid. In addition, several science ambassadors are serving as expert resources for Sustainable Pittsburgh, a group working with a number of partners in the Pittsburgh area to develop a regional energy strategy.

"I think the program has made a difference in how the region views issues surrounding energy," says Gregory Reed, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Energy and among the program's first ambassadors. He points not just to an improved dialogue about the issue but also to the connections that have been sparked among different parts of the community. "There have been unpredicted outcomes, in terms of people coming together and creating opportunities where they didn't exist before." Reed himself is now working with the city of Pittsburgh to develop an energy strategy for the city's downtown -- a collaboration he would not have foreseen before the program.

Building Better Communicators
To connect with local leaders and other groups, the program's scientists and engineers need to be able to convey what they know clearly and effectively, so a key part of the program is giving the ambassadors intensive communication training. Workshops led by experts in science communication have trained the participants to draw on stories and examples to ground explanations, for example, and how to use visual aids effectively.

The scientists and engineers completed the training feeling far more prepared to engage with the public, they reported. And the benefits extended beyond the program; when evaluators checked in with the ambassadors later, all of them said they had used what they had learned in some way outside of the program. To build on this foundation, the program provides individual coaching before events and plans to hire a communications coach. "We also want to map the trainings more closely to the events so the ambassadors can put what they learn into practice right away," says Terrell Smith, who supervised the program for the Academies.

Communicating effectively also means engaging local leaders in the right way. The program found that while general audiences may prefer the traditional lecture-and-Q&A format, local leaders want more of an interactive dialogue. These are highly competent civil servants, says Sickler, and the "deficit" model of science communication -- "You lack something that we will provide" -- doesn't work. "It's important to approach them as partners and honor the expertise they bring to the table."

Future Directions
Plans are underway to recruit additional ambassadors in Pittsburgh, using the opportunity to broaden the cadre's subject-area expertise -- possibly transportation, water, health, decision science, and other areas. The program is also working to develop funding approaches that can make it sustainable in Pittsburgh for the long haul.

In addition, program leaders are weighing whether it's time to expand the model to other cities -- but not in an identical, cookie-cutter way. "Success in Pittsburgh and other cities depends on meeting a local need and fitting into a local agenda," said Sam Taylor, who directs the program on the ground in Pittsburgh. That may mean focusing on issues other than energy or engaging community leaders in different ways.

"This program has demonstrated that scientists and engineers can be successfully woven into decision making in ways that truly benefit local communities if they use best practices in communication -- listening to the needs of citizens and engaging with them in ways that uncover the relevance of the science to solving community problems," says Barbara Kline Pope, executive director of the Office of Communications, which oversees this program for the Academies. "We are eager to identify the next city that will embrace this model."

-- Sara Frueh

More information on the program is available at <>.

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