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Kate Brauman Pursues Ways to Stay in Touch with Communities

Kate Brauman talking with Peruvian women about their work managing water systems, at USAID Forum on Gender Equity and Water Security in Peru.
Kate Brauman (third from right) talking with Peruvian women about their work managing water systems, at USAID Forum on Gender Equity and Water Security in Peru.
Photo credit: Luis Lujàn Càrdenas

Kate Brauman has long been troubled by how hard it is to communicate research findings and other updates back to the communities she and her colleagues engage with during their fieldwork. She wanted to tackle this challenge as a part of her Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement fellowship. Brauman points to an often-significant divide between what communities expect, and what researchers can actually provide, especially when it comes to the timeframes involved in research. She notes that the last paper she wrote related to her dissertation was published five years after her fieldwork ended. “It seemed crazy to share it back five years later,” she says, but in the meantime, people were left to wonder what happened with the project they had contributed to, and potentially feel somewhat negatively about it as a result.  

To help address this, Brauman, lead scientist for the Global Water Initiative at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, decided to try using a newsletter to share updates among the many people involved in a large South American project she’s leading, including both researchers and local community participants. She eventually created a template she liked, since existing templates were difficult to use, and then she asked each group to submit 200-word updates. She had the first edition translated into Spanish and Portuguese, using seed money from the AAAS fellowship. Brauman notes that all project participants speak English, but this seemed like the right approach to take.

So far, Brauman sees lots of avenues for improvement. In the second iteration, the Brazilian team provided updates, and she was very happy they could share that two of the post-docs had secured faculty positions. However, local participants did not reply to her open call for updates (though she still plans to follow up individually, hoping that may be more effective). She is also uncertain if anyone is reading the newsletter. While people were interested in it in theory, “they are all human and busy like the rest of us,” acknowledges Brauman. She notes that because the Leshner fellowship training encouraged her and her colleagues to show their human side when engaging, she decided to include a photo from her wedding in the first newsletter, along with a short announcement that she had gotten married. She was nervous about doing this, but it was well-received, which also provided some indication that people were looking at it.

Brauman plans to continue producing and iterating on the newsletter, balancing the urge to wait for “news” with the need to keep partners informed of progress even when no new results are available. She has felt hesitant about writing the next issue because sadly, one of the post-docs who had worked on the project unexpectedly passed away. Once diving in, however, the newsletter became an important way for the group to move forward. Team members submitted memories, poems, and photographs, transforming an unhappy announcement into a celebration of life. She is also considering whether a different communication channel might be more effective (it’s currently a PDF email attachment), such as What’s App or Facebook, though she prefers not to because she, like many of her partners, currently practices work-life balance by using these platforms just for personal communication.

In her policy-related work, Brauman was recently a coordinating lead author on a chapter of the May 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services produced by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which warned that one million species are at risk of extinction. She wrote about being part of this process on the IonE blog, and later was one of five people who spoke at a House Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing on the report. Brauman reports that a pre-hearing conversation with AAAS staff was critical to her preparation and confidence speaking to Congress.

Kate Brauman moderating panel on source water protection at the Institute on the Environment.
Kate Brauman moderating panel on source water protection at the Institute on the Environment. | Credit: Sean Quinn.

Much of Brauman’s time this year has been devoted to a new effort at the Institute on the Environment (IonE): their Impact Goals. IonE is reorienting its research around specific changes they want to achieve in the world. One of these is safe drinking water for all Minnesotans, and Brauman was appointed the lead on this goal. “Public engagement is and will be a critical part of figuring out what is actually needed in order to accomplish these goals,” says Brauman. They recently held a source water panel with participants such as a distillery owner and a farmer, who discussed their water challenges. The vast majority of attendees were members of the public. She was pleased with how productive the discussion was and thinks there will be more like it as the effort progresses.

Brauman notes that collaborating across departments to connect people working on drinking water and discuss different kinds of research has shown her that institutional change sometimes faces a chicken-and-egg problem. “You want to do something, but you have to socialize it with people. But you also kind of just have to do it,” she says.

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.