This month, we’re asking all community engagement professionals within science to complete our state of scientific community management survey. The survey’s intended to determine the variety of community-building roles that exist within science, and is the first activity of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows program. We’ll be sharing a report of the survey results once we’ve analyzed them.
But just who are the scientific community engagement professionals? To help answer that question we’re running a series of Q&As with people in existing community-building roles. If any of these stories resonate, please do take 15 minutes to complete the survey! The more input we have to the survey, the more detailed our view of the overall landscape will be.
Today we’re featuring Aidan Budd:
Thank you for agreeing to speak with us about your work as a scientific community engagement manager! Could you introduce yourself to our readers? Tell us a little bit about yourself and the community you manage.
For the last four years, I’ve spent half my time managing a community of bioinformaticians at EMBL Heidelberg. We’ve been working to help bioinformaticians across the lab get to know each other better, identify common needs and challenges, and collaborate to address these.
Several of the active members of the community are service staff and do this as a (often small but core) part of their job. Most of the members, however, are volunteers who choose to spend some of their time on community collaborations. These volunteers are key to the success of the community – many of the community’s resources were developed and are maintained by volunteers.
With several other life science organisations in Heidelberg, we run regular events aimed at bringing together people interested in science communication, bioinformatics and/or “alternative-format” meetings, We’ve established a legal organization associated with these activities, “Heidelberg Unseminars in Bioinformatics e.V”. (HUB e.V.), of which I’m currently chair. I love how my work with HUB involves collaborating with a really diverse group of people, including bioinformatics researchers, editors, journalists, designers, administrators, free-lancers, Master’s students, PIs, people working in companies, in private and public research institutions.
What was your path to community management? Were you trained as a scientist or did you come by another route?
After completing my PhD in bioinformatics, I worked as a commissioning editor for a year before moving back to academia in a role combining bioinformatics research, service provision, and training. I realized my interests had shifted from actually doing biomedical research, to wanting to understand (and implement) ways of delivering more effective bioinformatics training.
After five years of focusing on training, I realized that my interests had now moved onto facilitating more effective collaborations involving researchers. For example, I’ve enjoyed exploring crowd-sourcing the writing of scientific review/opinion articles. Aware of my interests in collaboration and community, the Strategic Head of Bioinformatics at EMBL Heidelberg (Peer Bork) gave me the job of managing the internal bioinformatics community I mentioned above. I discovered that I love, and am fascinated by, community-focused work – et voila!
Can you describe the key responsibilities of your role? What does an average week look like for you at the moment?
As I’m about to leave EMBL, my weeks are no longer typical for my role. However, before we entered this transition period, I spent about half my time working on the internal EMBL bioinformatics community.
One of the most important parts of my community management role involved providing contexts for people with shared interests to meet and explore how they might work together to address common challenges and goals.
Another key part of my role has been to make it as easy as possible for the ideas and projects discussed in meetings to be realized e.g. by organizing and providing support for the logistics for these collaborations.
Particularly in the context of my work with HUB, I also have focused on coordinating, planning, and delivering participant-driven unconference/unseminar-style events – one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my work over the last years! I love watching relationships being built, and seeing people sharing and hatching plans to start working together to make good things happen.
So, an average week is spent on a mixture of face-to-face and electronic (mostly e-mail) discussion to coordinate the activities associated with the communities. Sporadically, I also have written marketing and publicity texts, and organized, delivered, and analysed surveys to chart the development in bioinformatics activities at our institute. Some time has also been spent delivering and facilitating a range of training (and other) events.
Do you share the task of managing your community with anyone else – and do you belong to a team or wider group working on the project?
I’ve worked closely with other people who’ve done the technical work of developing resources for the communities – a core part of their official roles. Over the last year, that work was done by my colleague Toby Hodges, and in this transition period where I’m leaving EMBL, he has also taken over the community management role.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a scientific community manager? Are there ways in which your role could be made easier – such as professional development opportunities or something else?
For me, I think the biggest challenge has been my work at the interface between the active members of our internal EMBL bioinformatics community, and the senior stakeholders who support our work. Active members, particularly the volunteers, are focused on what they can do, now, to make things happen that will benefit the group – while senior stakeholders are more focused on the long-term strategic development and sustainability of the group. To me, these different perspectives are both aligned and compatible (we all want the community to succeed!); however, helping others see this too can take considerable effort (mostly focused on supporting and maintaining effective communication between the different parties). However, it is something I’ve come to see as essential for our mutual success.
I’m one of the few people in our organization with a clear remit for community-building – and I’m completely self-taught in that role. One key thing that would make my role easier, is the opportunity to interact more with other (scientific and non-scientific) community-focused workers, to exchange ideas, experiences, opinions, and expertise – I think Trellis offers a superb opportunity for such interactions, hence my enthusiasm for engaging with the platform.
And zooming out a little, why do you think community engagement important to science? How have you seen active management improve your community?
The obvious, tangible benefits that stick out are the resources that have been developed and events that have been delivered as a result of discussions amongst members of the communities I’ve been involved with. Most prominent among these are the delivery of regular courses on topics chosen, and taught, by volunteer community members, the establishment and maintenance of a local gitlab and Biostar-style discussion forum, and the long-running series of local unseminar events.
A big part of what excites me about working to build communities is the opportunities they offer to build successful collaborations centered on the shared goals, interests, and values of the community members. Communities give their members the chance to achieve so much more than they could on their own – and to achieve it in the company of people you want to work with, if you’re seeking excitement, inspiration, and fellowship.
I love Bruce Caron’s distinction between communities-as-social-containers (groups of people who have something in common) and community-sense i.e. “a quality of interaction within this group, a shared sense of belonging and trust.” (Caron, B (2015) Getting a Handle on Community, retrieved 20 October 2015). When we talk about “building community” what we are usually interested in is improving the quality of these interactions, of increasing the sense of belonging and trust shared by members of the community-as-social-container.
There is a growing awareness of the ROIs associated with community-building (the Community Round Table provides lots of interesting resources and ideas on this topic) – put simply, I think that many of these ROIs are relevant also for science, and that by expanding the community-building work in a scientific context, we have many chances to together enhance and energize the scientific endeavor.
Particularly important, in my opinion, are the opportunities offered by community-building activities for building stronger, more effective collaborations – collaborations focused on the specific needs and interests of the people doing the science, collaborations that increase the feeling of fellowship, and well-being, of participants, collaborations that feed innovation.
In summary, I think that more community-management, more community-focused work in science is a great opportunity to make more, more exciting, more engaging research happen – and for it to happen in a way that also has a big positive impact on the enjoyment and engagement that researchers and other stakeholders get from this work.
Find all of the interviews in this series by clicking the “community engagement Q&As” tag at the top of any blog post.