How Early Career Scientists Can Serve Science Through Policy: a Workshop at the 2017 AAAS Meeting

AAAS imageEarly career researchers aspire to engage with society while still pursuing their research careers. They may engage by contributing directly to policy decisions or by becoming community advocates. This type of engagement is critical for making the public understand what science is and what scientists do. At the same time, it gives junior scientists multiple avenues by which to serve society through policy. The goal of a recent AAAS meeting session, entitled “How Early Career Scientists Can Serve Science Through Policy,” was to gain perspective on and explore such avenues for engagement with society.  

The session was coordinated by Georgia Lagoudas, a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Broad Institute, and Abigail Regitsky, a treasurer for the MIT Science Policy Initiative. This is a group of graduate (and some undergraduate) students whose goal is to create better scientists and engineers as well as a better society through rigorous research and authentic engagement with public policy.

The presenters in the session were: Noelle Selin, an Associate Professor at MIT and Associate Director for the MIT Technology and Policy Program; John Gavenonis, a Technical and Business Manager at the DuPont Experimental Station; and Paula Garcia, an Energy Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Consider your goal

In general, the presenters advised early career scientists to engage not only with policymakers but also with interdisciplinary researchers studying all aspects of a problem, as a helpful strategy for having a more well rounded view on a particular policy issue. Early career scientists therefore need to understand both science and policy when going through their career transition. They should also be aware of the “policy literacy” concept, which means understanding that you are taking a risk when going into a new field, and that you need to learn how networks in policy work. You also need to understand the social context behind a particular policy issue, and the consequences that may arise from studying it.

Your PhD and postdoc training may provide general skills that you can utilize in the policy world. However, additional skills needed in policy can only be developed by reaching out to or joining student groups or other community organizations. This type of experience will teach you very different skills than those gained during your scientific training. However, your scientific background can also help moving forward. If you can make a link between your expertise and an impact at the policy level you will be at an advantage.

Thinking more broadly about what roles you want to have in policy can also help you start to shape the path you want to take. Do you want to be directly involved as an advocate for science? Or do you want to have more of an advisory role? For the latter, having credibility and expertise in your scientific area can also be very helpful in becoming a resource for others.

Assess your motivations

One broad motivation for early career scientists to engage in public policy may be to increase scientific literacy. The presenters stated their current roles were based on a need to change a certain policy that was brought to their attention by other people (e.g. environmental policies). Therefore, listening to people’s concerns could lead to a policy that needs changing, and which you might end up working on. Or, what you work on may stem from your own personal interest or motivation to change a specific policy, which can be a very powerful strategy for success in this field. Thus, strive to find out what type of policy you are passionate about and make connections with people that do it.

Utilize practical strategies

The presenters suggested several useful strategies for how early career scientists can engage in policy. Initially, you should engage with people who currently have jobs in policy, or with faculty who are studying the policy process. This strategy would help you learn a little bit about the policy world, and get a sense of how it is different from the academic world. To engage more deeply in the process, you must therefore immerse yourself in the policy world as quickly as possible.

Practically speaking, you should start getting involved in policy early on in your training by obtaining relevant experiences and building networks in the policy world. And, if this is an option, the best way to learn about policy is to work full-time on policy issues, while making sure not to burn out (which can happen easily in the fast-paced world of policy).

Specific strategies for entering the policy world include connecting with Washington offices from specific schools (such as the MIT Washington Office) and engaging with policy efforts from professional societies. Taking it one step further, multiple avenues exist for you to gain actual hands-on policy experience. These include finding internship opportunities, attending Congressional Visit Days (such as the MIT Science Policy Initiative), attending a public hearing on policy issues of interest, getting involved with the MIT Technology and Policy Program, and completing a Certificate program (like the MIT Graduate Certificate Program in Science, Technology and Policy).

Another useful strategy is to make local connections with groups focused on a particular policy. Alternatively, you could assemble your own science policy group, and thus generate a core group of people interested in the policy issue that you may have a personal motivation to work on. Alternatively, connecting with larger groups focused on improving policy more broadly is also a good way to make an impact. Such an example is the Scholars Strategy Network, which seeks to improve public policy and strengthen democracy by organizing scholars working in America’s colleges and universities, and connecting scholars and their research to policymakers, citizens associations, and the media.

General advice and conclusions

One of the important points in this session was how to decide which policy questions to focus on, and which of these questions are interesting and relevant to policy in general. Connecting with stakeholders that have similar interests can be a good way to collaborate on specific policies. This requires developing strategic partnerships, finding out what issues are important to other organizations, and designing common questions of interest together.

In building evidence-based policy, read existing reports and judge for yourself whether you believe the information. Also, always check the credibility of resources used for writing various policy documents. This strategy will also help you form your own position on a certain policy. One final word of advice – although you may be tempted to devise primarily policies based on “hot topics,” this focus is actually not advisable, because oftentimes these topics have a short half-life and you want your career to have a long one.  


This post is part of a series of articles by guest blogger Adriana Bankston, where she will look back at workshops from the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Boston.

On April 22, the March for Science will be happening across the world. Its a perfect way to stand up for science and show your support for research. If you are interested in getting further involved in science policy following the march, feel free to reach out to AFS at info@save-science.org. There are also other great organizations working on science policy, such as Future of Research (FoR), whom you can contact via info@futureofresearch.org.

Bio

Adriana Bankston is a policy activist at Future of Research (FoR), a nonprofit organization representing junior scientists, through grassroots advocacy, to promote positive systemic change to the way we do science. Her goals are to promote science policy and advocacy for junior scientists, and to gather and present data on various issues in the current scientific system. She can be reached via LinkedIn or on Twitter.

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