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How Scientists Can Influence Policy

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CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Are you tired of seeing science-related policy decisions made with insufficient input from knowledgeable scientists? Would you like to help change that—and inject your expertise into the policy conversation? A workshop delivered as part of the annual meeting of AAAS (publisher of Science Careers) on Friday explored how interested scientists can go about influencing public policy.

There is "a lot of different legislation that relates to science," said Aline McNaull, a policy associate at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland, who coordinated the "Scientists' Role in Policymaking: Communicating How Legislation Affects Research" workshop. Broadly, science-related legislation falls within one of two categories. The first category is legislation that deals with a range of issues requiring scientific expertise, such as agriculture and disaster management. The second category is decisions that directly affect research and the way it is conducted—science research budgets, for example, and research regulations.

"University relations offices are usually very open about helping faculty and students get engaged, and they usually have a way to pull you in." —Amanda Arnold

Scientists, then, can play one of two roles in helping to inform science-related policy. First, they can act as experts: "Many staff on the Hill … don’t have a scientific background, so they ask for advice about scientific topics," McNaull said. Second, they can tell policymakers how policy decisions affect their work, describing how funding reduction or cumbersome regulations would hamper their research, McNaull continued.

How can scientists get involved? The first step is to figure out what is already happening. Expand your reading to include science-related policy news, as well as reports and newsletters from think tanks and professional societies, advised Elizabeth O’Hare, a program officer on The National Academies' Board on Higher Education and Workforce in Washington, D.C. It is also important to think about how your science relates to the issues you learn about. If you’re on campus, talk to faculty in the school of public policy to see what’s happening there, and practice communicating your interest with them, O’Hare added. "Ultimately, policy is communication, so getting involved in that as a postdoc is very helpful."

One time-tested way of trying to get your voice heard about an issue is to send letters and emails to members of Congress. The work of congressional staff is fast-paced and pressurized, so adjust your explanations to their level of expertise, be concise, and offer concrete suggestions, O’Hare suggested. Amanda Arnold, senior policy advisor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, added that an especially effective technique is to "tell narratives about your daily life. They pick it up and run with it; that’s absolute gold." Be prepared to back up the points you are making with evidence, since some policymakers will ask for it, O’Hare said.

Don't limit yourself to letters and email. Pick up the phone. "Phone calls the day of or before the vote are absolutely the most effective way" of influencing a legislator, O’Hare said. When interns and staffers receive a high volume of calls, members of Congress want to know. They'll seek that information "right before they go on the floor," O'Hare said.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that all the action takes place in Washington, D.C., said Joanne Padrón Carney, director of the Office of Government Relations at AAAS in Washington, D.C. Members of Congress also spend a lot of time in their home districts—and when members of Congress are in Washington, D.C., "their schedule is completely crazy." They are subjected to "a tsunami of information overload," she added. "So if you can engage at a district event … you can accomplish more. It can bring home a message in a more effective way sometimes than sending a letter when they are in D.C." If you are nervous about getting involved, you may also want to explore avenues at the local policy level, Arnold says.

Channels for interaction with policymakers have been put in place by universities, professional associations, and organizations like AAAS. "Many universities have some kind of government offices," Arnold said. "University relations offices are usually very open about helping faculty and students get engaged, and they usually have a way to pull you in." Many run webinars and congressional visit days, where scientists can visit Congress and talk about the importance of science, for example.

Professional associations like the American Chemical Society also organize briefings with scientists on Capitol Hill about issues relevant to the scientific community, McNaull said. "If members of Congress are interested in the issue, they will have a hearing and ask the society whom they should call for expert witnesses."

Another way of influencing policy is to serve on an expert panel. The U.S. National Academies, whose core mission is to advise the nation on science, engineering, and medicine, regularly produces reports on science-related issues. "For each study, the staff identifies the expertise needed and we call on experts to serve on study committees," O’Hare said. Once you're established as an expert in your field, you may be invited to participate. If not, you may still be able to participate in meetings and workshops set up by the U.S. National Academies, where scientists can offer relevant information.

U.S. National Academies reports can be influential. "It is always a struggle to get very busy policymakers to read these reports. But they are used at the state and local level, by faculty members and universities, and by staff writing legislation on Capitol Hill."

It is important for scientists to recognize that the line between scientist and advocate is fine. When they are limiting themselves to explaining the current understanding of climate change, for example, scientists are "not trying to influence" policy makers; they're "just helping them do their job," said Padrón Carney. But when they start offering opinions about what should be done to address the problem, scientists should tread lightly. They can be "a honest broker, saying, here are a range of different options available, without picking which one is the best. This is a value judgment for the policymaker to make," Padrón Carney said. Scientists "need to be very careful" and clearly emphasize whenever they are going from explaining the science to making a judgment about the issues.

Resources recommended by the panel

Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy—a list of publications, fellowships, and internships for students and scientists interested in policy produced by a coalition of scientific and engineering societies including AAAS

The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships

Working With Congress: A Scientist’s Guide to Policy by AAAS

ScienceInsider (published by AAAS)

The New York Times’ science section

The Center for American Progress

The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics by Roger A. Pielke, Jr.

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