Imagine this, you’ve worked for months to submit an application for an NIH grant for your research. After all your hard work, you received the grant, great. Now it’s time to put the research dollars to work. You’ve conducted your research and publish it in a good journal. You’re doing good science and moving the field forward. You’re helping people.

Then you find out that you’ve been cited. Create news, right? When you further investigate, you see that your research was cited in a congressional “Wastebook” highlighting the haley3government’s “egregious, outrageous and unnecessary government spending.”

That’s right, after all the work you put into your research for month or years, now it’s being mocked on the floor of the United States Senate. Unfortunately, this has happened to hundreds of scientists as members of Congress work to cut the federal budget. Though research in a variety of fields continues to answer questions about ourselves, our world, and the challenges we face, these advancements may not be apparent to those without scientific training. The disconnect between science and those holding the microphone to discuss science publically has resulted in misunderstanding, devaluing, and even ridicule of the work of scientists in the media, on Capital Hill, and in people’s homes. 

Fortunately, there is something we can do to help mend this problem. Simply, scientists have the opportunity to be their own advocates and explain their research to the public, the media, and their elected officials. This may mean speaking to the local radio station or newspaper about your research, or calling your elected officials to share about what you’re doing and why it’s important. You may have the opportunity to meet with your congressional delegates of their staff in Washington D.C. (but plan early, most ask for 4-6 weeks notice), or you can stop by their local offices. Wherever you make the connection, you have pull as a constituent.

Beginner’s tips for being an advocate for science: 


  • Know your worth
    • Consider the significance of your science for the public. Does your research help answer questions about human health, environmental sustainability, or space exploration? Zoom out from your specialized focus and highlight the potential impacts. 
  • Do your research
    • Use your scientific research training to help learn more about your elected official or other policy maker. What are their priorities? What legislations have they supported in the past? If you are meeting with a congressional staffer, see what you can learn about them as well. What issues do they cover? What other interests and connections do they have concerning science, technology, and education? Also consider the legislative calendar, and know what legislation is coming to the floor. 
  • Don’t go empty-handed
    • Making a personal connection with your elected officials is great, but it’s even better if you have prepared information to leave with them. When seeking your senators’ and representatives’ support for science and education, try to prepare a specific ask, such as a request to sponsor or co-sponsor a specific piece of legislation. Concise one-pagers with graphic information can be helpful for the staffers to pass along to their boss and to share with other policy makers.
  • Offer to serve as a resource
    • Ask how you can help. Offer to provide additional information, reach out to colleagues, collect constituent stories, or serve in some other capacity. 
  • Follow up
    • Send a thank you note, and provide electronic versions of any leave-behind materials, as well as additional info you promised. Again ask if there is anything you can do to help. Building a relationship is more valuable than a one-time visit. 

Perhaps your efforts are more grassroots, and you prefer to focus on one-on-one conversations with friends and family, or start engaging your peers in conversations about the science policy and scientists’ role in the matter. There is no shortage of opportunities to be a voice for science in the public, whether locally or globally. However, there are a few things to consider in order to effectively communicate your message to non-scientists.

At the heart of science’s public perception problem is a language barrier. Let’s be honest, much of our academic jargon is not in the average person’s lexicon, and it is often unique across fields. You’ve likely working as a science translator at every family holiday party when you’re asked that familiar question, “so, what do you do?” Opportunities like these allow you to talk about your science with non-scientists, but also to explain the significance of your research and broader science to the public and the nation. 

The language barrier does not end their, however. Just like our academic fields, political jargon can be a barrier for those of us that are not trained in law or policy. However, just as scientists must help the public and elected officials understand our work, we must make an effort to understand theirs. It can be easy to become discontent and frustrated with the political gridlock, but disengaging from the process cannot move us forward. The most effective work between science and policy is done when they understand and respect each others’ differences. For example, science values numbers, data, evidence, and technical expertise; politics values words, public opinion, and general understanding of a range of issues. While some of these differences may be hard for scientists to stomach, appreciation for them allows us to work more effectively with our elected officials, understanding their competing demands and priorities.
haley1
Once you’ve begun learning the language and are looking for ways to engage in the science and policy space, you may prefer science policy, or science for policy. Science policy includes the rules and regulations under which science in conducted, the processes by which these regulations are made, and science funding. This can be a great place for anyone to get involved in science advocacy by letting elected officials know that you, as a constituent, value science and would like their commitment for continued and increased science funding. There is a vibrant and quickly growing community of scientists and others who are engaged in science policy, and opportunities to join in this effort are ripe. 

Science for policy, on the other hand, is the use of scientific research to influence other areas of policy. Though extremely valuable, this can be a more challenging space to enter. Due to the previously mentioned differences between science and policy, working in science for policy can be a difficult environment, where value-free, objective scientific research is critiqued from moral and political standpoints and open for public debate. In the public policy arena, science cannot provide an answer to what policy is “right” or “wrong”, but can help inform the choices that are made. In addition to the environment, working in science policy can be more difficult to enter, but opportunities exist in local, state, and national government offices and agencies, non-profits, the National Academies, and elsewhere

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is a rich resource for learning more about opportunities from both perspectives, and serves as a hub for those interested in the work. The AAAS Making our CASE workshop, which I had the pleasure of attending, provides a great overview of the history of science and policy, current efforts, a glimpse into the federal budget and congressional process, and a chance to network with others who are engaged in this space. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in learning more to reach out to the Graduate School concerning the Spring 2017 workshop, and explore the additional resources below. 

Opportunities and resources for those interested in science policy: