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How to engage in shaping science policy

Written by Naomi Handly

Scientists are becoming increasingly aware of a responsibility to advocate for science policy. How do they start?

Scientists who are intimidated at the notion of participating in science policy but want to get involved can start with simple measures such as contacting their local representatives.

Government-funded scientific research supports important discoveries at universities across the nation and has brought about monumental changes in human health. Ongoing studies depend on these funds, making the proposal of another budget cut alarming for many researchers. “In the life sciences, and science in general, we are beneficiaries of enormous public trust,” said Keith Yamamoto , the first Vice Chancellor of Science Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). “We have a responsibility to the public to talk about what it is that we do.”

Yamamoto began working in public policy during the Vietnam war and later worked on the McGovern presidential campaign. “That got my mindset activated,” he said. Later, as a professor, Yamamoto became deeply invested in the goal of giving science a voice in shaping, rather than just reacting to, new public policies. He now actively encourages other scientists to engage as well.

While many scientists are recognizing a growing need for greater public interaction, putting thought into action can be daunting. Several challenges arise, from a lack of interest to a lack of time. And some simply don’t know where to start.

“You have to find out what you care about and then decide that you care about it enough to make a little extra time to do it,” said Gabrielle Kardon, a genetics professor at the University of Utah who has advocated for issues such as combating climate change and research into a rare birth defect, congenital diaphragmatic hernia.

“It has long been the tradition that we don’t dirty our hands with this sort of thing, that getting into this muddiness of public policy and politics is something we shouldn’t do,” said Yamamoto. Becoming biased or crossing ethical lines when advocating for science are legitimate concerns that shouldn’t be treated lightly. For those weighed down by these worries, Kardon recommends advocating for science funding without pressing for specific research areas. “Of course you advocate for your science, but you advocate before a group of peers that are going to evaluate the quality of your science,” she said.

There are several ways to get involved. For example, researchers can contact local representatives to make them aware of their concerns and priorities. “It really means a lot for those people to hear from constituents,” said Yamamoto. He suggests writing a letter or calling local representatives to make the most impact, but e-mail also works. Additionally, since many scientists already regularly make trips to Washington D.C. to sit on study section panels, they might consider opportunities to set up a meeting with representatives to discuss scientific progress and what researchers need to sustain their productivity.

There are opportunities for early career scientists as well. Graduate students can apply for fellowships through NOAA and AAAS that provide opportunities to learn first-hand about policymaking. These can lead to careers in science policy and the knowledge of how to stay actively involved and support others in their policy influencing efforts as well.

Some Universities now provide resources for scientists looking to become involved. For example, Yamamoto and his team recently organized a Science Advocacy 101 forum at UCSF to teach scientists how to talk to politicians. (A video of the presentation can be seen here.) The Science Policy Committee at The University of Chicago also hosts seminars and workshops about science policy.

Additionally, organizations such a Research America, the Coalition for the Life Sciences, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research provide information and opportunities to advocate for science. Simply find a cause of interest and contact an organization for volunteer tasks that fit your schedule.

Aside from working with politicians and advocacy groups, with a little effort, researchers can regularly engage with their communities. “A big challenge is for scientists to be able to convey clearly to non-scientists what it is we do and why it will make a big difference,” said Yamamoto. Because many non-scientists don’t understand the importance of basic research, communicating with your community via social media, attending outreach events, or just talking to neighbors can be an effective way to recruit more science advocates.

Getting involved in science policy doesn’t have to be difficult or take a large amount of time. Not every interaction will make a significant difference in public policy, but taking no action will definitely result in no change.