Darshan Karwat’s story starts out the same way many scientists’ and engineers’ do. As a kid, he was fascinated by rockets, stars, and space. (He still is!) In college, he majored in aerospace engineering and followed his dreams all the way to a Ph.D. To round out his study on biofuel combustion, Karwat ventured beyond traditional engineering fare and broached questions about how engineers view their work in the context of big societal issues like climate change.
After that, Karwat’s story took a bit of a left turn. Along with his peers, he applied to a slew of postdoctoral and faculty positions. But he didn’t land a single one. After a year of travel, retrospection, and applying for jobs, Karwat’s story ended happily. He landed a prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellowship and, ultimately, a dream job at Arizona State University (ASU), where he is now an assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Polytechnic School.
“I’m really glad I didn’t get any of the jobs I applied to [initially], because that led me to the AAAS fellowship,” Karwat says. “It was the perfect opportunity for me to experience how technically trained people can do work with significant social and policy implications.”
In one project at ASU, Karwat helped create an interactive art experience called When Mental Walls Lead to Physical Walls that uses the case of the U.S.-Mexico border wall to inspire people to think critically about the role of engineering in society. In another, Karwat and collaborators are laying the groundwork for a large-scale movement of engineers and scientists to address environmental, climate, and energy justice issues driven by the priorities of community organizations.
Karwat’s focus on using science and engineering to solve societal problems is emblematic of an approach we at AGU call community science. Grounded in the needs of social and geographic communities, community science is done in partnership with nonscientist community stakeholders. It is scientifically rigorous while recognizing other ways of knowing.
Community science is an out-of-the-box approach to fields that have historically seemed pretty comfortable in the box. Is community science a career risk? Is it possible to pay the bills while forging a new way of doing science? What career paths exist for scientists who want to work with communities, and what opportunities might be created in the decades ahead?
To find out, we interviewed people engaged in community science at different stages of their careers and in different sectors. In their stories we found insights, inspiration, and a few cautions.
Find Your Why
Everyone we interviewed had one thing in common: motivation to make a difference. If you’re considering a career in community science, think about what motivates you. What issues speak to you? What future do you envision for your community? What do you enjoy doing? What do you not?
Geologist Davis Tolman found his way to community science from a seemingly unlikely starting place: a 35-year career in the oil and gas industry. After retiring, Tolman applied his scientific background and big data skills to study flooding and political districting, issues he saw affecting his home community in Houston. Partnering with community groups through Thriving Earth Exchange has helped get Tolman’s studies into the hands of people working to address the Houston area’s persistent flooding challenges.
To Tolman, science is a valuable tool to bring clarity to nuanced community challenges.
“I think there’s a really important role for scientists nowadays as things have become so contentious,” Tolman says. “Things seem to be going more binary, not just politically but on many fronts.…A scientific approach allows us to make decisions as a community and as a culture without falling into the trap of this binary, black-and-white decision-making.”
Find Your Place
Community-focused work is often not a natural fit for existing career advancement structures. One challenge is that community science is highly interdisciplinary, making it harder for an individual’s contributions to stand out. Success in community science simply isn’t reflected in most of the check boxes typically used for promotions and tenure.
As a result, many who are engaged in community science currently do it as a side gig while seeking advancement in their day jobs through more traditional science and engineering work.
“A lot of people who are doing amazing community work are not doing it for any professional gain,” says Karwat. “They’re doing it because they feel it needs to be done.”
Nonetheless, there are opportunities.
In academia, community needs can be a source of inspiration for research. Although academics tend to eschew work perceived as too narrowly focused on specific applications, it is possible to bridge the gap by looking for areas of community concern that, if solved, could lead to the generation of new knowledge.
In industry, one might look for areas where the concerns of a company and a community overlap. It is usually in the best interest of corporations to gain the support of communities where they operate. Companies also may have financial motivations to avoid environmental or humanitarian impacts, bolstering the case for working in partnership with communities to avoid issues in the first place, rather than having to resolve conflicts after they’ve developed.
Casey Thornbrugh, who holds a Ph.D. in geography, ultimately found his place not in industry or academia, but right in his home community. Being a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe was always an important part of Thornbrugh’s identity, and rather than following the traditional academic path, he decided to bring his expertise back to the tribe.
Today, as tribal climate science liaison for the United South and Eastern Tribes, he helps tribal nations link their own expertise with what science has to offer. Many tribal nations are developing climate adaptation plans, which often requires combining information from regional climate centers with tribal knowledge and values.
Through site visits in which he works with community members to identify the specific tribe’s priorities, knowledge, and worldview—how they live with the weather and how they predict it, for example—Thornbrugh lays the foundation for partnerships between tribal nations and climate scientists to build resilience to climate change impacts.
“I enjoy going to different communities and learning what they need, and I really like to get tangible things done,” Thornbrugh says. “In school, we learn about all the problems and things that aren’t working out so well. I don’t like to just keep talking about things—I’d rather focus on creating a plan to address those problems.”
Build Your Skills
What knowledge and skills are needed for success in community science?
A doctorate is good for getting deep disciplinary knowledge, but skills like communication, collaboration, and listening, as well as traits like curiosity and empathy, are often more crucial for community science. Although scientific knowledge and methods are important, community science is more about figuring out how the tools of science can complement a community’s values and knowledge to advance broader goals.
“It involves being able to communicate, but also knowing when to stop talking and listen,” says Thornbrugh. “When I came back to work with my tribe, I had been a teacher, and I was used to talking a lot. Family members and elders would say, ‘That’s great—but you get a lot more information when you just listen!’”
Communicating effectively with a broad array of people who bring their own backgrounds, baggage, and motivations is central to Jennifer Jurado’s role as director of environmental planning and community resilience for Broward County, Fla. The county faces significant concerns related to sea level rise, and addressing these issues requires bringing multiple parties to the table, from municipal government to businesses to residents to academics.
“One person can’t deliver everything that a community needs, so partnerships and knowledge sharing are essential,” Jurado says. It’s not enough to simply do a study or name a problem. Finding solutions requires information, empathy, and empowerment.
“Sustained engagement with a broad community network is our responsibility,” Jurado says. “We need to step outside of our comfort zone and empower others to speak with confidence about these issues. It’s a constant process of self-improvement, but it’s essential for the research to be supported, advanced, and utilized—instead of just being shelved—so that we can be better partners in our community.”
Build Your Field
Susanne Moser took a leap of faith when she struck out on her own as an independent researcher and consultant focused on helping communities adapt to climate change. Although she says the move was definitely a career risk, it proved to be one worth taking. With a background in both human and physical geography and strong communication skills, she found her niche as a person who can build bridges among stakeholders to help guide solutions.
Moser attributes some of her business success to the nature of the problems communities face—and the clear value of science in helping to address them.
“I think there is a growing demand for engagement with science,” Moser says. “That has a lot to do with working in climate change, where everyone looks to science to tell us what will happen.”
Although climate is clearly a space where science is needed to inform decisions, the same could be said of pollution, energy, agriculture, and any number of other mounting societal concerns, suggesting an upward trajectory in demand for community-engaged science.
But institutional changes are needed to increase opportunities and rewards for scientists and engineers who want to serve communities.
“It is really helpful that groups like AGU and AAAS are working on developing formalized structures within which this work can be done.…There is a latent dissatisfaction on the part of a lot of engineers related to their wanting to do this kind of work but not being able to do it [as a career],” says Karwat. “We need people at all levels in all types of organizations pushing to change the incentive and organizational structures of science and engineering to allow more of this work to happen.”
Addressing vexing community concerns often requires breaking through barriers: communication, funding, power, policy. Bringing scientists in as partners in these efforts may in turn require breaking some of the barriers that keep scientists from contributing as fully as they could.
“There are still obstacles stacked against this field,” Moser says. “Tenure is based on publications, not how many city council meetings you’ve been to. We need to move from tolerating engaged science to promoting it.”
Do you have a vision for promoting community science? Do you want to be an unconventional academic like Darshan Karwat? An industry professional with an interest in community problems like Davis Tolman? An information matchmaker like Casey Thornbrugh? A coalition builder like Jennifer Jurado? An independent business owner like Susanne Moser?
Whatever your destination, a path in community science will chart new territory for science, communities, and our shared future. So find your why, build your skills, and create a place for community science.
Then share your own story with us.
—Anne Johnson (email@example.com), Science Writer