Geoscientists engage with nonscientists of all ages
Geoscientists address society's challenges by engaging with nonscientists of all ages. Universities can play a vital role in providing support, guidance, and resources for these efforts. Credit: Karin Higgins, Strategic Communications, University of California, Davis

Geoscientists play a critical role in addressing societal challenges related to natural hazards, climate change, the environment, energy, and resource issues. Many geoscientists who recognize this critical role put their knowledge into action by engaging with local communities and beyond, and we are called upon by public leaders to do more of this work [e.g., Lubchenco et al., 2015].

Engaging with societal challenges requires more than just a one-way transfer of facts.  It necessitates multidirectional dialogue with those outside the research community based on shared values and understanding [Meadow et al., 2015]. Universities benefit from this type of engagement through the rigorous use-inspired research it generates, as well as better community relations, higher-quality teaching, and service learning opportunities.

Unfortunately, at many universities, engagement is still viewed as an optional professional activity, having a lower priority than research, teaching, and university service [Whitmer et al., 2010]. This perception stands in opposition to growing understanding that engagement is a necessary ingredient in actionable science: Researchers cannot and should not craft usable knowledge all on their own [Clark et al., 2016]. Training and encouraging individual geoscientists to engage the public is necessary, but insufficient, to address the critical societal challenges that involve the geosciences.

How Do We Fix This Disconnect?

Universities should play a central role in both bottom-up cultural change and top-down support for public engagement.

We suggest something different: Universities should play a central role in both bottom-up cultural change and top-down support for public engagement. Geoscientists are educated in and often employed by universities, and universities can coordinate existing resources and build new capacities to amplify geoscientists’ collective impact.

We recognize that motivating and enabling scientists to create a culture of engagement cannot happen in a vacuum—support and opportunities must come from a university’s institutional and administrative levels. Universities must also evolve to incentivize such engagement.

To fix the disconnect, university-based geoscientists should use faculty and student governance structures to create change that strengthens the culture and formalizes support for public engagement.

What Is “Engagement”?

Public engagement describes “intentional, meaningful interactions that provide opportunities for mutual learning between scientists and members of the public,” according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In other words, engagement includes all of the activities that scientists do to bring their work into the world around them and the ways that scientists do better by learning from people beyond academia.

Engagement activities can include communication with the public, providing input into policy making, citizen science, and research cooperation. Each of the authors has been recognized as a public engagement fellow by the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute, and we each take our own approaches to engagement based on what works best for our research topics and personal style.

For us, engagement activities include working with national and local parks on environmental monitoring and restoration projects that involve hundreds of volunteers, building relationships with local and state leaders to improve the resilience of climate-sensitive communities, and working with policy makers worldwide to help inform the negotiation and implementation of international treaties to address toxic pollution. We also spend time translating science to state and federal decision-makers and designing research projects in collaboration with stakeholders.

Five Core University Capacities That Support Public Engagement

Universities can support their faculty, staff, and students—and advance their missions—by embracing five core capacities to support public engagement. In this way, the university forms the central pillar that enables a swirl of public engagement activities by many members of the university community. Credit: Bethann Garramon Merkle

Universities can bring scientists together in ways that transcend disciplinary boundaries, spawning innovative ideas for tackling societal challenges. Solutions to such problems require integrative, multidisciplinary perspectives, broad collaborations, and strategic engagement with specific public audiences.

We propose that universities develop five core institutional capacities to support public engagement.  These capacities are not unique to geoscience engagement, but they can catalyze transformation when combined and directed at large-scale interdisciplinary challenges:

  • creating networks of scientists from across disciplines working on public engagement to provide peer-mentoring support and collaboration on existing and new initiatives
  • developing best practices, informed by literature on science communication and outreach, to train, educate, advise, and support faculty and students
  • convening stakeholders to collaborate with academics on projects, events, and engagement strategies toward shared goals (stakeholder groups can include concerned citizens, nongovernmental organizations, industry representatives, and government officials)
  • establishing incentives such as merit pay, workload modifications, and tenure and promotion credit to support developing engagement skills and to recognize high-quality engagement activities
  • facilitating regular evaluation of public engagement activities and processes, using evidence-based approaches to improve the quality of engagement and university support

To build these core institutional capacities, universities could integrate best practices, expertise, and support that may already exist scattered throughout each university, allowing universities to coordinate, leverage, and elevate existing resources. One approach is to create centers with professional public engagement staff that provide a one-stop shop for students, faculty, and staff. However, universities should tailor their approach to their unique needs and contexts.

Effective Engagement Requires Funding, but It Won’t Break the Bank

Universities need to make long-term commitments to engagement, with sustained support from administrators. In addition, students, faculty, staff, alumni, and local communities can work individually and collectively to build a case for why resources for public engagement are critically important.

Building engagement capacity requires resources, but engagement is not a zero-sum game, and resource requirements can be modest. For example, universities can help build partnerships with community groups, making it easier for individual faculty to institute collaborations. They can offer small seed grants to faculty and students who seek to connect to the public. The AGU Centennial Celebrate 100 Grants are a perfect example: Small amounts of money can jump-start engagement activities.

The investment pays off: Universities benefit when their scientists are ambassadors who publicize the return on investment of scientific funding. Scientists can leverage engagement initiatives to pursue meaningful activities with broader impact, and they can build bridges beyond the university to solve problems.

Institutional change does not have to take an all-or-nothing approach—incremental steps can demonstrate the value and success of university investments.

Give Engagement Formal Structure and Support

Systemic change requires supporting and recognizing team-based and long-term efforts that build to significant outcomes.

Systemic change requires supporting and recognizing team-based and long-term efforts that build to significant outcomes, not just recognizing a few stellar individuals or events within a university or professional society. To facilitate collective action by many geoscientists, formalized infrastructure supporting engagement must be in place.

For example, universities often have Centers for Teaching and Learning to help faculty and others improve teaching; these centers offer training sessions, provide targeted individual assistance (e.g., evaluating individual teaching efforts by observing classes), and connect faculty to research in education and evaluation. Engagement centers could fulfill similar functions, such as providing training in communications, making connections to experts in policy and law, or helping organize stakeholder engagement workshops.

Geoscience faculty and students can, individually and collectively, push departmental and university administrations for formalized support structures. Department chairs and tenure stream faculty, who have greater access to power within university structures, could lead the charge for institutional change, but all members of the university community should be empowered to advocate for change through departmental committees, student government, and unions.

The National Science Foundation and other funders value public engagement as a “broader impact.” Organizations like the National Alliance for Broader Impacts provide examples of engagement successes that scientists can use as a jumping off point. But networks within institutions can also facilitate idea exchange, local knowledge, and in-person training and support, so that researchers can better maximize engagement efforts.

Rather than being informal and ad hoc, engagement can be prioritized if university administrators create a formal space for ideas to grow. Through such a space, university-based networks can grow as individual scientists across the campus find each other.

The collegial atmosphere has an added benefit: Just like the way research collaborators pool together to discuss a negative result or a failed experiment, universities can support scientists in learning from and responding to engagement attempts that are not always positive.

Lessons Learned from Existing Successes

Building university-based public engagement capacity enables geoscientists to work alongside colleagues from other disciplines, learning from and developing improved practices across a broad range of science-society interactions.

Geo-social scientists in a Maryland wetland
Geosocial scientists can collaborate with policy makers to support smart decision-making in coastal regions like this Maryland wetland. Credit: Ariana Sutton-Grier

Geoscientists already work, in part, within existing models that institutionalize support for public engagement on sustainability challenges [Parris et al., 2016]. Such models include Cooperative Extension, Sea Grant Extension, state water resources research institutes, and climate impact–focused Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) centers. These sustained and successful programs promote evidence-based decision-making, facilitate cogeneration of ideas, and support translation of knowledge into action. They build long-term relationships between university and decision-making communities. Staff and faculty alike are involved with public engagement, the work is financially supported, and engagement is incorporated into merit and promotion metrics.

These programs are shaped by the goals of scientists, communities, and state and regional policy makers. University-based geoscientists could build upon lessons from these existing models to advocate for long-term support across a broader range of issues.

Similarly, over the past several years, AGU has expanded trainings and programs, such as Sharing Science and the Thriving Earth Exchange, to encourage members to engage with communities and decision-makers [Vano et al., 2017]. AGU could also play a role in advancing university initiatives, and university administrators and geoscience faculty and students could work together with AGU on these initiatives. However, professional societies cannot replace all of the core capacities and human power that universities can leverage.

Expected Transformation

New public engagement initiatives should be inherently collaborative and multidisciplinary. In particular, public engagement initiatives could facilitate greater interaction between geoscientists and social scientists, recognizing vital human components within the Earth and environmental challenges facing society.

Societal challenges are too important to leave engagement to individual scientists acting alone or to after-hours efforts.

Just as multidisciplinary research collaborations can take extra time to realize their full potential, university structures must recognize that relationship-building and public engagement activities often require patience and careful tending before they bear fruit, particularly when engaging with marginalized communities. Successful and transformative public engagement produces benefits even when it may not generate awards, media coverage, or viral Internet attention. Engagement helps guide research approaches that are sensitive to public needs, and it translates results into knowledge that benefits communities, society, researchers, and academic institutions.

Societal challenges are too important to leave engagement to individual scientists acting alone or to after-hours efforts.  Universities, along with organizations like AGU, need to lead the charge to amplify individual efforts. By developing university capacities to connect, train, support, and reward public engagement, geoscientists can enhance their collective impact in addressing societal challenges.

We invite you to continue the conversation with us at Fall Meeting 2018 session PA13D, “Behind the Scenes on the Front Lines of Science Communication: How Institutions Can Support and Reward Scientists Who Do Public Engagement Work” on Monday afternoon in the poster hall.


The authors are AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellows (2016–2017). M.A.K. received support from Maryland Sea Grant (SA75281760ACL3 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).


Clark, W. C., et al. (2016), Crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., 113(17), 4,570–4,578,

Lubchenco, J., et al. (2015), Sustainability rooted in science, Nat. Geosci., 8(10), 741–745,

Meadow, A. M., et al. (2015), Moving toward the deliberate coproduction of climate science knowledge, Weather Clim. Soc., 7(2), 179–191,

Parris, A. S., et al. (Eds.) (2016), Climate in Context: Science and Society Partnering for Adaptation, John Wiley, Hoboken, N.J.,

Vano, J. A., et al. (2017), Partnerships drive science to action across the AGU community, Eos, 98,

Whitmer, A., et al. (2010), The engaged university: Providing a platform for research that transforms society, Front. Ecol. Environ., 8(6), 314–321,

Author Information

Anne J. Jefferson (; @highlyanne), Department of Geology, Kent State University,  Ohio;  Melissa A. Kenney (@melissakenney), Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites–Maryland, University of Maryland, College Park; Tessa M. Hill (@Tessa_M_Hill), Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Davis; Noelle E. Selin (@noelleselin), Institute for Data, Systems and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge


Jefferson, A. J.,Kenney, M. A.,Hill, T. M., and Selin, N. E. (2018), Universities can lead the way supporting engaged geoscientists, Eos, 99, Published on 10 December 2018.

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