Skip Navigational Links
Dawn Home   Profile   CV   Research   Teaching   Lab   Links   OSU CEOAS       Last update: July 6, 2016

Research On April 30, 2013, COMPASS published a commentary in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. My essay below was part of an invited series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences that we hope will expand the conversation. Read the summary post here, the link roundup here, or track the conversation on Twitter by searching for #reachingoutsci.

COMPASS is an organization that provides scientists with the tools they need to be better communicators. It also brokers connections among scientists and between scientists, policymakers, and journalists, while also leading various communications trainings, including formerly for the Leopold Leadership Program.

The Courage to Escape

by Dawn Wright

I really appreciate the work that COMPASS has done to empower individual scientists to navigate that sometimes precarious intersection between science, policy, and the media. I first had the opportunity to work with COMPASS in 2006 when they helped me to prepare for some public testimony on the need for mapping the Oregon Territorial Seafloor at a meeting of the Governor of Oregon’s Ocean Policy Advisory Council.

I soon learned through their help that I could be confident not only in my science, but in the oral communication of that science to an audience other than my peers at a conference, or my students in the classroom. And certainly several years speaking to 5th graders about exploring the ocean floor hadn’t hurt either!

But now things were getting “serious.” Having crossed that divide into the world of the tenured professor, I found new freedom in being able to pursue more projects for the greater good: taking on campus committees to improve curricula not only for my own classes but for others; serving the National Academy of Sciences on committees that provide expertise needed by federal agencies and Congress; even thinking about ways to help communities and charities with my slightly larger paycheck; and yes, more of communicating science to policy makers, the media, and the public.

But could I go even further? Along with my new freedom, I also came up against the reality, at least on my campus, that “to whom much is given, much is required.” Where are your new publications in the HIGHEST-impact journals? What about that 6-figure grant that you were in the running for? We need you to take on and FUND more graduate students to keep our graduate program viable! Can you speak for the college at this reception for donors? Can you create more courses for this degree program, which, by the way, need be offered both in the classroom AND online for distance ed.? Can you speak up for your discipline in the face of condescending colleagues who do not respect it and would rather see it go away?

This is a worthy calling indeed, and not for the faint of heart. And my heart had not fainted in 15 years as a professor. But I began to wonder if I could keep the pace that had carried me to that 15-year mark, and if there might not be a new and better life for me outside of the ivory tower, especially if it would help me to be a better, more whole person. Could I, in fact, make an “escape”? Would I have the courage to do so? What about tenure? What about colleagues thinking that I had “sold out” to the “dark side” of the commercial sector? Can there really be TWO outcomes working in concert together, “the production of the best possible science AND the production of something useful?"

I feel very privileged to have spent so many years on the Oregon State University campus where I had many chances to interact with Jane Lubchenco herself, Brooke Smith, Karen McLeod, Heather Reiff (who took my courses!), and so many others associated with COMPASS. And I had always admired the Leopold Fellows on my campus, chief among them Mark Hixon, whom I had seen “translate his knowledge to action,” and truly inspired action at that, on so many occasions. I decided to learn more about the Leopold Leadership Program and to apply. This would be my first step into a wider world, and unbeknown to me, the first stage of the “escape.”

A few months after being accepted to Leopold, the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri), a leading information technology company, with which OSU has had a long-term relationship, including an extensive geographic information system (GIS) site license, asked me to serve as their chief scientist, and to also lead their new initiative in better applying their technologies to the oceans. Despite the fabulous opportunity, I was still fearful of “escape.” I did not want to resign and give up tenure, so I negotiated with my dean at the time to let me go on a leave-without-pay basis. With my leave soon expiring, I made a careful analysis of the circumstances, including what would be best for the future, and decided to make the ultimate “escape.” Therefore, I have resigned from OSU and given up my tenure (effective September 2013), but will retain affiliated (aka “courtesy”) professor status (ah, the flexibility of academia).

I have not regretted taking this step away from the ivory tower. The environment here at Esri has not disappointed. And this stands to reason with a mission statement such as this: "Esri inspires and enables people to positively impact their future through a deeper understanding of the changing world around them. For more than 40 years, Esri has cultivated collaborative relationships with partners who share our commitment to solving Earth’s most pressing challenges with geographic expertise and rational resolve. Today, we believe that geography is at the heart of a more resilient and sustainable future. Creating responsible products and solutions drives our passion for improving the quality of life everywhere."

Esri is also a very relaxed place to work, with lots of interaction and intellectual stimulation among brilliant people, passionate about what they are doing, and hoping to "make a difference" (not unlike a university)! I report directly to the founder and CEO, Jack Dangermond and we are working together on a number of initiatives, chief of which involves ocean mapping at the moment - very exciting. We are some developing some very powerful tools and approaches for ocean geodesign (including coastal and marine spatial planning), bathymetric data processing and deployment in the cloud, and much more. And there are also opportunities to meet some fascinating people who are attracted to the company and want to collaborate, such as Peter Raven, one of the world's leading botanists and advocates for conservation and biodiversity. While "on campus" with us at headquarters, he also gave a "town and gown" lecture and had dinner with us.

I also began to notice how my peers respected the fact that I was still trying to produce good science with my new colleagues in industry (yes, we do good science in industry too!), as well as do something useful. The invitations to give seminars and keynote lectures from places that I had never gotten a look from before started to come in. The project collaborations with colleagues continued. But there have also been so many opportunities to engage in science communication as well -- including talking about the importance of the oceans to an audience of 12,000 -- and to engage with captains of industry, government officials, even celebrities. In fact, I would now consider science communication to be a vital part of my job! And it is wonderful to work for a company that makes such huge, positive impacts (e.g., aiding in disaster response, public safety, tracking disease vectors, hurricanes, human mobility, “geodesigning” land and ocean space use to more closely follow natural systems, protecting freshwater resources, in short, using maps and geographic analysis to change and better the world).


Ultimately, one of the biggest reasons that I’ve been happy at Esri is that I still remain an academic, and am charged as Chief Scientist to do so. In fact, I basically do the same things except for having to teach and constantly chase after grant money. I am still doing research, still publishing, reviewing papers and NSF proposals, still advising a doctoral student, doing occasional lectures and workshops, and a lot of science policy/service (e.g., National Academies, NOAA Science Advisory Board, journal editorial boards, etc.). I’m still going to the same academic conferences, helping Esri to be known as a member of the scientific community rather than "just" a software vendor. There have been challenges as well, but the pluses have far outweighed the minuses. Combine all of this with working directly for a wonderful CEO in a privately-owned company that is non-hierarchical, low-key, with, as President Obama recently quipped, "no peacocks, no jerks, no whiners," and I feel blessed.

While it's not for everyone, escaping from the ivory tower can be great, in more ways than one!


Related Blog Posts or Articles:


As Chief Scientist of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri), the world's leading geographic information system software, research and development company, Dawn is responsible for strengthening the scientific foundation for Esri software and services (especially in environmental, conservation, climate, and/or ocean sciences), while representing Esri to the national/international scientific community. She maintains an affiliated faculty appointment as Professor of Geography and Oceanography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. Dawn's research interests include seafloor mapping and tectonics, ocean conservation, environmental informatics, and ethics in information technology. She is also currently into road cycling, apricot green tea gummy bears, 18th-century pirates, her dog Sally, and SpongeBob Squarepants. Follow her on Twitter @deepseadawn.

(to Top)

Dawn Home   Profile   CV   Research   Teaching   Lab   Links   OSU CEOAS