Have you ever wondered if there is a way to combine your love of chemistry and your desire to make an impact on society? I certainly did! And my explorations led me into science policy and advocacy.
For many, science and politics are two spheres that don’t mesh. However, throughout my academic career, I have seen how much the government impacts available funding for scientific research and its influence over the public’s understanding, knowledge, and views about the role of science in our world.
I have also appreciated just how important scientific knowledge and discovery are to inform governmental policies related to health, climate change, and education among other things. Bringing science into governmental affairs is not only important, it is needed to create a planet that is safer, more innovative, and healthier for its inhabitants.
Engaging in science policy and advocacy has been pivotal to my professional development, and there is good reason for you to think about becoming involved. I’m going to tell you why.
What is science policy?
"Science policy" is a broad term for how government and business standards influence—and are influenced by—science. Most work in science policy falls into two categories: (1) science for policy and (2) policy for science.
Science for policy focuses on communicating the evidence provided by scientific research to those folks who influence and shape policy. One example is writing one-pagers that act as primers to help policymakers understand the science behind policies. For example, a science outreach task force at Northwestern University issued an evidence-based statement on the harmful exposure of a pesticide called neonicotinoids on bees that consume pollen from plants that are sprayed with the insecticide. Bee pollination is massively important to crops production and biodiversity. The critical information presented in a one-pager like this one can have a serious impact on policymakers responsible for issuing laws that could prevent the use of neonicotinoids.
You can use your interest in socio-scientific issues such as climate change to provide actionable items for your local community. A group of graduate students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a policy memo about green infrastructure incentives to mitigate extreme flooding in Madison that has caused more than $154 million in damages.
Policy for science is centered around the policies that shape how we conduct our scientific work. You might provide recommendations that promote and reform graduate education policies and resources, such as the Mapping Graduate Student Perceptions of Policies and Resources report written by early-career scientists through the National Science Policy Network (NSPS). Or you might put out a policy position paper on the importance of diversifying the language of science beyond English.
Science policy does not have to be US-centric. Science diplomacy looks at the impacts of science on an international scale. This can be as varied as explaining how artificial intelligence technologies impact agriculture in West Africa to creating an in-depth proposal of measures to blend domestic and foreign policy for digital surveillance reform.
As scientists, we are in a special position to use our knowledge, leadership, and science communication skills to make society better. Most importantly, though, science policy pushes you to use your communication and leadership skills to highlight and use science for the betterment of society.
Getting into policy
Let me share how I got involved with science policy. My science policy journey really started in my last year of undergrad study when I was selected to attend the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (AAAS CASE) Workshop. The workshop was three eye-opening and intense days learning about the federal policymaking process and how important it is for scientists and engineers to participate in crafting policy.
I met with staffers from my state representatives’ offices and got to network with other early-career scientists and engineers who were empowered to make change through science policy. We had a number of quick meetings with congressional staffers to promote funding for scientific research as a part of their annual budget considerations.
Although we focused on the staffers who do the bulk of the legislative work, I had an opportunity to get a quick photo with then-senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) while walking between meetings!
Not just federal government
Living in Iowa, I had a unique and enriching experience organizing the Iowa Science Policy Candidate Survey Iowa’s State Science Candidate Questionnaires. Alongside the small but mighty teams from Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, Science Iowa, and a March for Science chapter, I crafted questions about science, agricultural, and health policy topics important to Iowa voters, namely the role of biofuels in Iowa’s energy portfolio, sustainable agriculture practices that bolster rather than harm rural populations and natural resources, and access to mental health services. We built a coalition of local organizations who signed on to wanting to know the candidates’ answers to our condensed survey.
The goal was to get as many candidates as possible across all 99 counties to respond. We sent emails and made phone calls leading up to the elections. Candidates get battered with questions and surveys, so making ours stand out against established ones was a challenge. However, our coalition strategy showcased that Iowans across diverse communities who wanted evidence-based policymaking were interested in the candidates’ responses. We ended up getting a 10% response rate from the 2022 candidates, an increase from our first collaboration in 2020.There are plans underway to make the effort more impactful for 2024.
Disseminating the candidate questionnaire survey was only one part of the project. I got the opportunity to talk to people in the community and listen to various perspectives on how we should approach issues like improving public health infrastructure, protecting scientific integrity, and building rural resiliency in the face of climate change. The refinement of the survey was critical because we truly wanted to make Iowans have a say in policy decisions. Each of the organizations that signed on was able to contribute to the question construction. We had to balance brevity and ease with detail and relevance, and that was tricky.
We also had to be our own cheerleaders and amplifiers as we pitched the story of our efforts and results to local news to spread the word to as many voters as we could reach. People prepared social media posts and explored website traffic and analytics so that we could see and measure our impact.
Combining my grad program with policy
The science policy work I’ve done may not be related directly to my chemical education research, but the skills I honed enhanced my professional portfolio. I’ve explained complex science and summarized it in approachable chunks. I’ve learned to overcome failure when we couldn’t reach people, or when people weren’t interested in responding, which has a lot of parallels with trying to recruit people for my research.
I’ve been able to do some writing and synthesizing outside of academic research papers–making messages to the point and meaningful and sometimes fun for the social media posts. I’ve gotten comfortable doing cold calls and emails, learned how to make an elevator pitch, and have had a chance to talk about my science and work to people.
Many of the candidates I’ve talked to are thrilled to hear from students who are civically engaged. Sometimes you run into those who have their own opinions about science and evidence-based policies, so learning about different perspectives and motivations is always key to figuring out how to connect with people.
In the midst of it all, there were surprise successes, like when we got both candidates for the US Senate, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and the Democrat candidate Michael Franken, to share their thoughts on our candidate survey. It was great to hear what these prominent politicians had to say and to hear them share their thoughts on Iowa’s policies with the rest of the state.
How you can get involved
If you do a quick search on science policy, you will easily find resources pointing to fellowship opportunities like the Science & Technology Policy Fellowship offered by AAAS and other supporting professional societies (ACS policy fellowships included!), which put folks in positions working with members of the US Congress or in executive offices like the National Science Foundation or the State Department. However, you do not have to wait for a fellowship, and you don’t have to go to Washington, DC, to get involved in science policy. You can make change right where you are.
One of the easiest things to do is to sign up for ACS’s Act4Chemistry Legislative Action Network. The service alerts you via email of opportunities to sign, and even add to, pre-made letters to your legislators about current issues or bills you want them to address or consider. They also have tool kits and training available, such as the Climate Change Advocacy Workshop that the ACS Office of Public Affairs allows anyone to take. It’s a free series of resources at your disposal to try your hand at some easy ways to get involved. Consider watching the ACS webinar featuring chemists and chemical engineers catalyzing change through science policy and learning more about their experiences.
Finding local engagement groups and actions is easy! Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) has an engagement map that gets you started with activities in your community. If you’re at a university, consider checking out activist, advocacy, or political awareness clubs and organizations. There may be a science policy chapter or affiliated organization eager for your input.
Some chapters are connected to larger, national organizations like Science for the People, March for Science, Scholars Strategy Network, the National Science Policy Network, even the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. These organizations have opportunities or main missions that focus on local science advocacy efforts. You can also join virtually with larger organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists who will connect you to statewide organizing and advocacy efforts alongside training opportunities.
Look for ways you can participate and where you want to grow and foster new and developing skills. You can add your voice and expertise in activities, for example, by talking directly to your legislators during a state office visit or working with policymakers by giving them pertinent scientific information regarding an ongoing issue in your community.
I also recommend the National Science Policy Network. NSPN was a source of opportunity and community that I could not have imagined having when I first started exploring science policy. I used it to foster my own local community of like-minded peers interested in melding science, policy, communication, and advocacy. I shaped a webinar series tackling topics from inclusive graduate education to equitable broadband access and making science more accessible via language. I was enrolled in an inaugural four-part training series on learning what it meant to be involved in diplomacy as a scientist. I participated in a postcarding effort to get out the vote in underrepresented and disenfranchised communities. I even got the chance to be a leader—advocating for policies in and out of NSPN that are inclusive and equitable and learning to be inclusive as a committee chair.
Of course, science policy isn’t for everyone. It can be challenging at times because it is not a typical career option, or professional development opportunity, that advisers or mentors usually consider in academia. There are some who may consider it a distraction from the research you are doing.
Find mentors and peers who will support your exploration. Stay curious and open to the opportunities that come your way! You do have something to add; you bring your attention to detail, your critical thinking skills, and your desire to better society through evidence-based measures. Many policymakers, personnel, and government officials want to see scientists and engineers participate.
Now, more than ever, is the time to get involved. Trust in science has been in a decline, although science is integral to solving our problems both today and tomorrow. Whether or not you pursue science policy as a part of your professional repertoire or it’s a new career path for you, I wish you the best! It’s never too late to get engaged civically. Feel free to reach out and connect with me and others and take those chances to learn something new.