Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Feeding your Research into the Policy Debate

Credit: Architect of the Capitol

When environmental engineer Troy Benn sent off his first paper, he was not ready for the impact it would have. Benn's results -- which showed the near-total leakage of nanosilver into wastewater from some brands of socks containing the nanoparticles -- generated a lot of interest from the media, the public, policymakers, and manufacturing companies. And not everyone was happy with what it said. "You start working in science, and you figure you're just going to be alone in the lab and you'll publish your results but nobody will ever really talk to you about them," Benn says. "That was not the case."

"You can start at your own backdoor and take advantage of the many opportunities that exist for citizens to express themselves." --Sheila Jasanoff.

The experience left Benn, who was a Ph.D. student in the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) program in Urban Ecology at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, wanting to know more about how science is used in policy. He took classes and attended a 2-week workshop in Washington, D.C., organized by ASU's Center for Nanotechnology in Society. With help from the center, he included an interdisciplinary chapter in his thesis -- one of the IGERT program requirements -- based on discussions with people from industry, federal regulators, and policymakers. "The most important lesson that I've learned is that scientists do play a role, and it's a very large role, in ... contributing their research to policy deliberations," Benn says.

Scientific advances in nanotechnology, human stem cells, and other fields with a controversial impact on society stir public opinion about which research is appropriate and how it might be used. Scientists often generate knowledge that elucidates issues society is grappling with; scientific advances may even offer solutions. "It's incredibly important that ... scientific advice and evidence is out there and ... accessible to government," says Joanna Dally, the head of briefings, guidance, and secretariat in the U.K. Government Office for Science.

Ways to get involved

Dally isn't alone in her desire to involve scientists directly in important policy decisions. The appointment of a prominent scientist like Stephen Chu as U.S. Secretary of Energy in the Obama Administration, and the important role the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is playing in science-related policy issues, has made it very clear that scientists are eagerly sought to inform policy debates.

Troy Benn (Credit: Troy Benn)

Directly advising the government is usually reserved for elite scientists, but there are many ways other scientists can get involved. Ad hoc opportunities exist to help policymakers gather and deliberate on scientific evidence. Benn's supervisor was invited to participate in a workshop set up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the current knowledge about nanosilver and the environment to help determine how EPA should respond to a petition calling for regulation. Chatting with EPA regulators "helps continue the debate about how policy is going to affect all the stakeholders," says Benn, today a postdoc at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at ASU. In the United Kingdom, the Foresight section in the Government Office for Science examines a variety of issues in studies that "involve tens and tens and tens of academics" who help test ideas and scenarios, Dally says.

Most countries also run public consultations during which citizens, including scientists, can make their voices heard at different stages of the policymaking process. In the United States, federal agencies like EPA and the National Institutes of Health frequently ask for public comment on their policy-relevant papers. The European Commission and the U.K. government often ask for public feedback on bills they are preparing. "Public authorities are required to seek opinions, and scientists should be unafraid to express their informed judgments," says Sheila Jasanoff, a science and technology studies researcher at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the publisher of Science Careers, is running a new initiative called Expert Labs that aims to help the U.S. Federal Government tap into scientists' collective expertise. Expert Labs is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to develop online technologies to spread the word about the White House's questions and to gather replies from the scientific community. The tools in use currently include e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook.

The current big questions is: 'What are the big scientific and technological challenges that America should tackle?'

Scientists can also contact the government or individual policymakers directly just by writing or calling. "Just say, 'I know this is a topical policy question area because I've seen it in your recent white paper,' or 'I see that this is an area that your department is actively looking at,' or 'I know that there are policy questions in that area. … I think I've got some data that could probably assist you,' " Dally says.

Another way to get your message across is to team up with other scientists; your voice will be amplified if "there are several of you providing a coordinated, joined-up message rather than just you as an individual," Dally says. Learned societies and professional associations like the Royal Society in the United Kingdom often research policy issues, putting out ideas to stimulate debate and holding seminars with policymakers, Dally says. If your organization is too small to make a big impact, try and harness a bigger one. The Voice of Young Science, a network coordinated by U.K.-based charity Sense About Science, recently got the World Health Organization to recommend against the promotion of homeopathy for HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, influenza, and infant diarrhea in developing countries.

Joanna Dally (Credit: Joanna Dally)

Another effective way to reach out to policymakers is through the media. "The public at large are the people who elect the politicians, and the politicians read what is written in the media," says Karin Hermansson, research director at Public & Science, an independent Swedish organization that promotes dialog between researchers and the public. "Some blogs have had a very positive effect on the science policy debate," says Heather Douglas, a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, philosopher who studies the use of science in policymaking; she cites RealClimate as an example.

But there is much more to policymaking than the highest-level public authorities and climate change. In the United States, every state government has a number of relevant offices and departments that utilize committees and advisory boards. In Europe, you may be able to attend policy deliberations in your regional government and local public authorities.

One advantage of local activity is that it's much easier to have a big impact. "There are often really important technical questions that involve and affect one's local community," Jasanoff says, pointing to Cornell University, where ecologists helped the university assess whether its chilled-water system could draw cold water from a lake nearby, then return it without upsetting the ecosystem. "Modest means are sometimes very effective, and one should not be thinking only of being science adviser to one's president or prime minister," she says. "You can start at your own backdoor and take advantage of the many opportunities that exist for citizens to express themselves."

Learning to be influential

If you want to get involved in a policy debate, you first need to understand its broader context. "You're going to be talking about science that's cutting edge, and you're going to be talking about policy that's pushing forward on a cutting edge, and so there's going to be a lot of tension and concern," Douglas says.

Policymakers have to often make decisions right now, and most of them don't know much science. So "help them understand," Dally says. Bear in mind your interlocutor's needs and concerns and be clear about what your research can contribute to the debate. Avoid jargon and be concise and to the point. Also make sure you come with an open mind and listen carefully, Jasanoff adds. All your efforts will make "the whole process much easier in the long run because policymakers are going to have to go on and relay and translate that message to their colleagues," Dally says.

Policymakers are striving for stability in policy, so the findings need to be both major and robust, Douglas says. She encourages young scientists "to use the scientific community that they're part of to vet their work" using the traditional channels of informal feedback, scientific conferences, and peer reviewed journals. Then, "It's always a matter of thinking about, 'Okay, how strong do I think the evidence I have is?' and 'What are the consequences if I am wrong either way?" when deciding whether to report, Douglas adds.

Sheila Jasanoff (Credit: Martha Stewart)

If interest in policy is especially strong, consider seeking formal training. "There are many places that actually offer dual degrees, where you're doing, for instance, a Ph.D. in engineering but at the same time a masters' degree in public policy or environmental policy," Jasanoff says. Many opportunities for internships also exist (see box). AAAS, for example, offers the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships to spend a year in federal executive agencies. In Europe, some countries, including France and the United Kingdom, run exchange programs allowing scientists to shadow and build up long-lasting relationships with policymakers. Many learned societies, professional associations, and organizations concerned with the role of science in society provide policy courses and seminars. Communication courses may also prove valuable.

Benefits, risks, and limitations

The scientific community has a lot to gain from participating in policy debates, starting with helping to put in place well-informed science policies. Should scientists not get involved, "at some point, there could be ... decisions made that are not very good for the researchers just because of ... misunderstanding," Hermansson says.

But there are other advantages as well. Involvement in policy debates can inform your own research and give you new ideas to pursue. And by forcing you to communicate your ideas clearly and to think about their implications, policy experience can prove valuable when writing your next article or grant proposal, Douglas says. Being vocal about policy issues can also help you make a name for yourself while generating feedback from a broader range of people, she adds. "It will make your work better."

But be aware that, as you align your research questions more closely to policy issues, you're also exposing yourself publicly. As the public debate about climate change reminds us, it can get nasty, so you'd better be prepared. When you do work that is socially and politically relevant, there is a "huge possibility for benefit; and at the same time, if you do work and it angers people for whatever reason and it's prominent, people are going to jump on you," Douglas says.

Karin Hermansson (Credit: Per Ericsson)

Working close to policy can also make you vulnerable within academia. "A scientist just needs to be aware that there's potential for people to question the authenticity of the results or the credibility of the science when it is associated with a particular policy decision," Benn says. Your peers may think you're crossing borders into advocacy, he adds. Of course, scrutiny isn't always a bad thing, as any scientist who believes in peer review will acknowledge. Public and professional scrutiny "can actually help scientists be more thorough in the experiments that they conduct and in the analysis of their results," Benn adds.

Another reason scientists often steer clear of policy is that there are few incentives to participate -- no money and little professional recognition via scientists' usual reward systems. For young scientists who need to work hard in their research and compete for funds in a tough environment, "it could be really difficult" to pursue an interest in policy, Hermansson says. There are signs that this may be changing, however. For several years, the U.S. National Science Foundation has made it mandatory for grant applicants to demonstrate that their research will have an impact on society via the "broader impacts" criterion. This may help early-career scientists justify their policy-relevant activities to their institutions, Douglas says.

Finally, scientists need to be prepared to see science minimized, even if it's carefully considered. "Scientific advice and evidence is a key consideration for policymakers, but, at the end of the day, a policymaker would be informed by a number of different things," Dally says. These things can be political, ideological, social, ethical, and legal. So "it might not always be the case that the scientific evidence is reflected to the extent that those who give that advice might like."

Benn's policy experiences have been entirely positive. It has been "intellectually stimulating to learn how science is turned into policy," he says. "It really opened my eyes to the bigger picture of how the world works around science and democracy and technological development." The debate around nanosilver regulation is still raging in the United States, but the interest Benn's research generated has broadened the discussions, he says.

Benn's experience has also made him aware of other job avenues and of the possibilities for academics to be involved in policymaking. Although he's keeping his options open for now, he expects his policy experience gives him an edge if he decides to apply for professor positions. "At this point, not a whole lot of people do science and policy. There's definitely a niche for engineers and scientists to do that that makes them special," Benn says.

A (Non-Exhaustive) List of Further Policy Resources

Centers and networks

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the United States supports interactions between scholars and policymakers in Congress and the executive branch in Washington, D.C.

The American Institute of Biological Sciences offers science policy news, information on current legislation and issues, and help with contacting elected officials.

The Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado carries out policy-relevant research and runs the interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate Program in Science and Technology Policy. The center also offers short courses.

The Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University does research, cultivates public dialog, and fosters policies.

The European Commission's SINAPSE is an online platform for researchers, helping them promote better use of expertise in E.U. policymaking through networking, ad hoc consultations, e-debates, and an early-warning system.

Science Careers MySciNet has a Science Policy for All e-community for readers to network and engage in policy discussions.


The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (from AAAS) allow scientists to apply scientific expertise to public policy matters through 1-year assignments in federal agencies. AAAS also runs a crash course in science and technology policy named the AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy.

The U.S. National Academies sponsor the Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. It offers graduate students and postdoctoral scholars and those who have completed graduate studies or postdoctoral research within the last 5 years an opportunity to engage in the analytical process that informs U.S. science and technology policy.

The American Geological Society offers the AGU Congressional Science Fellowship for scientists to work in the office of a member of Congress or on a committee for a year.

In its AIP Congressional Science Fellowship Program, the American Institute of Physics also offers scientists the opportunity to spend 1 year providing scientific advice to Congress.

The American Chemical Society hands out fellowships for scientists to work in Congress or the ACS Office of Public Affairs for 1 or 2 years.

The National Sea Grant College Program Dean John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowships, in the United States, allow Ph.D. candidates in a marine research field to gain policy experience in the legislative and executive branch of government in the Washington, D.C., area for a year.

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation runs the Barbara Jordan Health Policy Scholars Program for college seniors and recent graduates to get health policy experience in congressional offices in Washington, D.C. The foundation also maintains a searchable database of fellowships and internships in health policy and related fields for undergrads and researchers.

In Europe, the Royal Society Pairing Scheme provides scientists in the United Kingdom an opportunity to learn about policymaking through a series of lectures and exchange visits with a member of parliament or civil servant. Here is the French equivalent.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in the United Kingdom has a Policy Placement Scheme for environmental science researchers and offers policy internships for students.

The British Ecological Society, NERC, and the Environment Research Funders' Forum have teamed up to organize policy-training workshops.

The U.K. National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts runs the Crucible program, which has a policy component.

Further reading

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's report on Improving the Dialogue with Society on Scientific Issues for the optimization of policymaking.

The European Commission's report Scientific Evidence for Policymaking, for European policymakers and principal investigators.

The European Commission's report Challenging Futures of Science in Society (the MASIS report), looking at the role and governance of science in society.

The 2009 article "EU policymaking: Rooted in Science?" looks at European policies for the use of science in policymaking.

The U.K. Council for Science and Technology's report on How Academia and Government Can Work Together.

The British Royal Society, Research Councils UK, and Wellcome Trust's 2006 report Science Communication – a survey of factors affecting science communications by scientists and engineers.

The U.K. Natural Environment Research Council's Science into Policy booklet.

Scientists who engage with society perform better academically, a research study published in Science and Public Policy by Pablo Jensen and collaborators.

U.S. freelance science journalist James Hrynyshyn deliberates, and the readers of his blog comment, on whether scientists should be policy advocates.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers