Tips for Scientists to Work Effectively with Communities

By: Nancy Holt
March 11, 2023
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Est. Reading Time: 5 minutes
Nancy Holt holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry and is a Co-founder of Science for New York.
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Scientists are expressing a growing interest in working with local communities. Effective engagement at this level can present a number of challenges. In support of these endeavors, I am sharing observations and lessons learned through the initiative I lead called Science for New York (Sci4NY). It brings scientists and policymakers together to work on issues that can benefit from problem-solving expertise.  

Some of our community-focused work includes mapping key science policy topics facing each of NYC’s 59 community board districts; presenting on climate impacts at community-level meetings; collaborating with the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice to allow local groups to have a larger say in setting climate research priorities; and engaging in conversations on climate justice projects in neighborhoods of Brooklyn.    

Getting up to Speed: I find this kind of task is best learned as a real-life experiment where one ventures out as a “student of the community.” Taking a proverbial random walk, as well as a physical stroll from time to time, can provide a sense of the issue’s landscape. In this process:

  • Talk to people that live or work in the community, play a role on local boards, are engaged with nonprofits, etc. 
  • Pay attention to how the community is organized. This includes where and when public meetings take place. Attend as many as possible. 

Community bulletins, newsletters, social media and local newspapers can all produce valuable insights – giving topics to discuss with people. Furthermore, determine the key players, and, perhaps most importantly, who has power! Know the existing and proposed initiatives, projects and legislation that can impact the community. Seek out historical insights and other contextual information on how issues came to be, and have changed over time. Lastly, don’t just try to understand their issues, but also their collective resources. 

Finding Your Role: After you know more about a community, it is important to carefully consider what you can contribute. These offerings will likely evolve over time, so revisit them periodically. 

  • Factors to consider may include some overlap of: what topics are highest priority/most timely; what interests you; where your skills are most valuable; how you might offer your assistance; and who is the intended recipient of your efforts.
  • Be honest with yourself and others about your availability.
  • Be forthright about what you do and don’t know, both to yourself and others. A good rule of thumb is to not interject on topics until you learn something meaningful about them.
  • Remember to be dependable and consistent to the maximum extent possible.
  • Think about your personal desired outcomes for these efforts, including what you hope to gain from the experience.

It is worth keeping in mind that communities are probably not expecting or waiting for you to show up. In addition, while people may see value in the idea of incorporating scientific input, they may not know how to engage with you either. Furthermore, a lack of interest in your contributions doesn’t necessarily translate to a disregard for science. Many people are simply too busy (many community roles are unpaid) to substantively consider these topics. Keep looking for the right opportunities and moments to demonstrate your skills and establish yourself as a trusted resource.

Other Items to Consider:

  1. Patience: Community engagement can often be a slow, arduous, iterative, and nonlinear process. People need to feel as if they are heard and conversations generally take place over longer periods of time.
  2. Consider Your Approach. It can often be better to ask insightful questions or add small points to enhance a conversation than provide information in long-form responses. Listening and learning will likely help the most overall, particularly at the beginning.
  3. Communicate Your Skills: Be able to clearly and succinctly relay what you might offer. Be open to feedback and suggestions.
  4. Listen for Community-Based Knowledge: People generally know a lot about the places where they live, classifying them as experts in their own right. This information is often relevant and can be very difficult to access as an outsider. 
  5. Adding Value is Different Than Having Expertise: Being the “scientist in the room” can be a difficult role to fill. What you know often isn’t directly applicable to local issues. Try to “meet in the middle” to the extent possible.
  6. Put Viewpoints in Context: Communities/individuals sometimes take paradoxical positions, either intentionally or unintentionally. Even in instances where people are well informed about their neighborhood, they may struggle to see the bigger picture around an issue. Try to understand their perspectives, as well as their motivations. 
  7. Be Diplomatic: Instead of “doubling down” on the science, consider potential win-win outcomes. This may include merging various inputs instead of trying to get people to understand and apply research findings to address local issues. Where possible, try to develop joint ideas. 
  8. Think Hyperlocal: While generalized guidance about how to work with communities can be helpful, matters can sometimes vary a lot over short distances, physical or otherwise. Furthermore, issues can get magnified in ways that may not seem to make sense without detailed situational insights.
  9. Understand Who Is Represented: Meet as many people as possible in various settings to help build a more complete picture of the intra-community dynamics and which voices are being heard.
  10. Know Who Isn’t Represented: Look for ways to acquire the perspectives of those not present. Keep in mind that outreach to these groups may be hampered by past negative experiences. Work to understand the challenges and carefully consider how to avoid repeating any adverse outcomes. Consider having something definable to offer in your outreach efforts, or not engaging until a point where you can maintain a sustainable relationship. 
Case Study: Catalyzing Outreach Efforts

During the 2021 NYC elections, Sci4NY offered a series of talks to candidates on timely science policy issues. A few approached us afterward to help them understand how climate change will impact their districts. This led us to develop “climate snapshots” where we collected, analyzed and summarized public data on the various aspects of this topic. The materials generated a variety of community engagement opportunities, some of which are ongoing. They included speaking at town halls, community board meetings, and in support of a community’s participatory budgeting efforts. With some modification, we were able to make the content useful for social media. We also wrote an op-ed on our experiences that garnered the attention of additional local communities.

One takeaway from these efforts was that synthesizing public information can be a useful starting point for outreach. It can build engagement on both sides – helping scientists to hone their skills, while promoting constructive ways to center conversations in communities. From there, new relationships can form, additional opportunities to collaborate arise, and important community insights can come to light.

Working with communities is generally a complex task. While there are no shortcuts, there is rhyme and reason. The more you learn and participate, the better. At least in a town as highly opinionated as NYC – where interactions can range from highly frustrating to rewarding, sometimes in the same discussion – seeing the humor in the process is sometimes the most important strategy of them all.

The guest author Nancy Holt holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and was an American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellow at the U.S. Department of State. She currently leads Science for New York.

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Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 03/11/23
Updated: 06/26/24
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