In the latest Association of Science Communications (ASC) Q&A, ASC’s Dr. Allison Coffin discusses science communications from a foundation perspective with Russ Campbell, Director of Science Communications and Strategic Partnerships & Senior Communications Officer for Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF), a private foundation that supports biomedical research, career development for scientists, and STEM education in N.C.
Allison Coffin: Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do with Burroughs Wellcome Fund and where the foundation is focused right now?
Russ Campbell: I’ve been with Burroughs Wellcome Fund since 2005 and over the last 17 years I’ve witnessed an evolution of the science communications movement, growing beyond exclusively STEM education to include civic science and all the various forms of scicomm.
When I think about science communications, I think about a Venn diagram with a circle for science outreach, a circle for science engagement, another for science journalism, science writing, science visualization, and so on. Adding another layer, each of those categories can be formal or informal. And they all fit together and overlap in various segments. It’s much more complex than just science communications as one easily defined bucket.
Within the foundation itself, I’ve seen science communications move through a few different channels. Grant applications being one avenue. Effectively communicating science across disciplines—almost a business-to-business model, but scientist-to-scientist—being another. And communicating the connection between society and science as a third. The biggest change over the last few years with that third bucket is the move to put a public face on the foundation and on the science.
The three areas we’ve been focusing our foundation’s resources to as of late are:
- Diversity, equity and inclusion in science
- Climate change and human health
- Science and the arts
AC: When you think about science communications and various channels of communication for the foundation, where would you say the bulk of the priority is placed?
RC: When BWF brought Dr. Mugila (MD, PhD), our new President and CEO, on board, that’s when I really started to notice a significant increase in resources dedicated to science communications and science and the arts. He’s exceptionally passionate about science and the arts, and supports the exploratory way art can allow individuals to express themselves and how it translates into scientific experimentation.
He hired Mandeep (Muno) Sekhon to work with me on our communications efforts and she has been a tremendous help and thought partner as we establish our funding strategy. As you can imagine, working in a place for 17 years can become a little like Groundhog’s Day, and Muno is great about challenging my assumptions and making me think through a project. Our communications are better because of her partnership and, of course, the resources that Dr. Muglia provides.
I would say as of right now, the majority of our funding is going into fellowships, whether it’s the AAAS Mass Media & Engineering Fellowship, The Open Notebook Early-Career Fellowship Program, or the National Geographic Fellowships. That’s followed by funding for skills building for effective science communications and journalism, some of which is tied into the fellowships. And finally, convenings are still a large part of our funding. It does still feel like we are in a transition phase and in early days of our new funding strategy, so some of this may continue to shift as new priorities come into focus.
AC: How has the amplified spotlight on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) shifted the focus within the foundation, especially considering BWF’s focus on career development and STEM education?
RC: Like the complex Venn diagram defining science communications, diversity, equity and inclusion can mean a lot of different things and has a lot of intersecting circles. As for the foundation’s DEI initiatives, we’re really laser focused on accountability. Every organization wants to say they’re prioritizing DEI right now and what we’re working to be hyper aware of is making sure it is not just a box to check. We’ve been making public statements around DEI and very public social justice issues, and while a lot of the accountability is internal, it’s something we’re making certain not to lose sight of. We’re looking at everything through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion, whether it be hiring and internal education, or funding and external partnerships. We still have a long way to go, but it’s been tremendous to see the foundation continue to make strides in that direction.
AC: When thinking about the DEI mission, are there some things that are obvious needs at the intersection of DEI and scicomm that aren’t being met?
RC: One of the major pieces of the puzzle I see missing is a funding model for science communications that makes sense. The dependency on network connections and those one-on-one interactions to make an introduction or become aware of an organization is not an ideal way to conduct inclusive business. We, like many foundations, don’t have a formal structure for how we fund science communication and there isn’t a lot of information publicly available to guide organizations that are looking for funding to the proper resources. Creating that funding model and publicly sharing that roadmap for organizations to reach out is one thing we know we can do better, and something we are working to establish tto become more inclusive.
AC: Looking at how BWF has refocused resources for scicomm over the last 2-3 years, can you share your observations about how the pandemic and a renewed focus on social justice issues impacted BWF’s scicomm response?
RC: We have upped the resources for science communications over the past few years, but a lot of that resource allocation was already underway before the pandemic. I would actually say that shift had more to do with the BWF leadership change than it did pandemic response.
The amplified spotlight on social justice, specifically right after the murder of George Floyd, was an impactful moment. That was the first time the foundation has ever put out a public statement on something that could be seen as politically charged. We’ve never made a statement before on a social or political topic, and that really sparked more transparent conversations about how we’re prioritizing our funding, how to hold ourselves accountable, and where we need to dedicate resources internally and externally. Out of everything that’s come out of the last two years, I’m glad to see more organizations share a public facing message around science and social justice.
AC: You were part of the scicomm movement early on, starting with Science Online. How do you think that experience shaped your approach at BWF? What needs do you see in the scicomm community and how can ASC help fill those needs?
RC: Science Online had everything to do with shaping my thinking about science communications. There was a strong focus around community building and network building. For me, I did not have a science or science communications background, I’m not a researcher, I just happened to work for a foundation and attended a Science Online conference in North Carolina. I was in awe of the number of people who turned up at the event, from researchers and scientists to writers and journalists, all with a common passion for talking about science. It really opened my eyes to the number of people likely interested in this space nationwide. I spoke to my boss at the foundation about it when I went back to work and she planted the seed to help them out with some funding. We ended up approaching Science Online with a fairly basic funding offer and we were able to see how much impact that funding had in growing that community and the resources available to them.
For me, attending more of these meetings and events since that first event, like Science Talk’s annual conference and AAAS meetings, continues to spark questions like: As a community, what can we do? As a network, what can we do? What are some things that are possible when we bring a bunch of intelligent people together to have conversations? And that’s what really continues to drive my interest in moving the BWF’s science communications investments forward. Getting to meet and work with incredibly talented, smart, and interesting people does not hurt either.
For more information on Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) science communications funding opportunities, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.