Melissa Kenney is Committed to Building Relationships

Kenney and Andy Fellows, the former mayor of College Park, Maryland are creating connections between the University of Maryland and communities in Prince George’s County, Maryland.| Credit: Allison Baer.

“Working with local and regional stakeholders takes time and requires realistic expectations,” says Melissa Kenney. As an assistant research professor in environmental decision support science at the University of Maryland, Kenney is building relationships with municipalities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This is helping her craft research that’s relevant to local stakeholders, and allowing her to test decision-making tools and processes on-the-ground. She emphasizes that communities need scientists who are available to answer questions related to science-based problems and solutions, including potential climate impacts. Kenney acknowledges that this level of engagement requires a sustained commitment from researchers to building these long-term relationships, but it helps ensure science has a seat at the policymaking table.

With funding from Maryland Sea Grant, a program funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the State of Maryland, Kenney has launched a “listening tour” to understand the scientific needs of regional and local decision-makers related to increasing resilience to climate change. “The Chesapeake Bay region has well-established networks of federal and state agencies, community organizations and local governments working to save the Bay. The opportunity now is to better incorporate climate impacts into current decisions, so that adaptation isn’t an additional requirement -- it’s part of making good decisions.”

As one of the first “learning together” projects, Kenney is working with Andy Fellows, the former mayor of College Park, Maryland (now affiliated with the University of Maryland iSchool and the National Center for Smart Growth). Together they mentored undergraduate students who synthesized the science and researched solutions about urban stormwater management in Prince George’s County. Kenney sees these projects as a step toward better integration of the university and the surrounding communities.

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellowship is helping scientists like Kenney think of public engagement in different ways. She notes that AAAS fellowships (she was also a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow) “give you a more nuanced understanding of your audience.” To influence policy, Kenney says scientists need to understand the problems and objectives of decision-makers, so they can assess and translate the science to be relevant to them.

Leshner Leadership fellows focus both on their own personal public engagement efforts, as well as on institutional change – advocating and building support for other scientists to do public engagement. Toward the latter goal, Kenney coordinated with several other Leshner fellows to write an editorial for the Ecological Society of America’s Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, “Engagement 2.0: increasing our collective impact,” which was published in October 2016. Kenney and several other fellows, Jeff Dukes, Jessica Hellmann and Karen Lips, also organized activities at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in August 2017: an “Ignite” session about public engagement and a workshop based on the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology’s Communicating Science workshops. In March, Kenney and Lips also participated in a AAAS Facebook Live chat about science communication. Collectively, by sharing a diversity of engagement options and building capacity in professional societies, Kenney aims to create institutional support for more scientists to include engagement as part of their research programs.

Time spent on public engagement may initially take away time from writing grant proposals or near-term research priorities, but Kenney expects to “plant the seeds of long-term collaboration and grow a network of scientists who want to engage the public.”

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.