This past summer, the future of our postdoctoral association’s Science Policy Committee was uncertain. We were without purpose, our programming was sporadic—a seminar here, a blog post there—and overall interest seemed low. As a co-chair of the committee, which had dwindled to a grand total of two members, I struggled to identify ways to engage our postdoc community and to transform our group into a productive and useful entity. Our postdoc association leadership felt—rightfully—that the committee wasn’t serving the needs of our community, and we were set to be on the chopping block if the committee couldn’t be revived with new goals for the next year.
Fast-forward through the imbroglio that has been our nation’s political landscape over the last few months, and now our committee is reinvigorated with a new purpose: to broadly advocate for science, which really should have been our purpose all along. It was like a light switch turned on after the election and our advocacy efforts kicked into high gear. We have been reminded that we can’t assume that everyone just gets that science is an important endeavor; we need to reach out, build relationships, communicate our science, and demonstrate why it is so vitally important.
Figuring out exactly how to do this can seem like a daunting task, especially for early-career researchers. Our day job—doing science—doesn’t leave much room for advocacy efforts. It also doesn’t help that many of us lack formal training on how to engage with the public or communicate our science. Starting advocacy efforts from scratch can seem overwhelming, making it difficult to know where or how to begin.
But we can’t let these challenges stop us. We should also remember that advocacy efforts are not one-size-fits-all; there are many different ways to support and advance science. Here are some tangible examples of what our Science Policy Committee has been doing and is committed to doing in the coming months—because who, if not scientists, will advocate for science?
Hold webinar viewing parties. Many scientific societies understand that their communities are concerned that science has lost its seat at the table (among other worries) and are producing webinars discussing policy changes and issues of importance to the scientific community. We have piggybacked on these efforts by creating opportunities for postdocs to watch these webinars together. With minimal effort, we have started to build community and identify individuals with science advocacy interests to increase our committee membership.
Host science policy seminars. To kick it up a notch from webinars, our committee is implementing more science policy programming during our weekly postdoc seminar series. Hosting seminars covering science policy topics, such as biosafety regulations and what working as a scientist in the federal government is like, provides a valuable opportunity for researchers to learn from experts about these issues.
Design a science advocacy workshop. We are organizing a citywide science advocacy symposium for early-career scientists that will feature workshops teaching advocacy essentials, including how to distill your message, contact your representatives, and use social media platforms to communicate science. Although organizing this event will take a lot of work, we believe it will be a powerful tool for active training, brainstorming, and community-building for participants from all of our area institutions.
Organize a State Hill Day. Interacting with politicians is a chance for us to convey the importance of science and to serve as a resource to our policymakers. Yet, most scientists have never talked to a politician. You can change this by getting a group of graduate students and postdocs together and heading to your state Capitol. Ask your university’s government relations department to help schedule meetings with your politicians. To understand the issues that are important to scientists in their districts, politicians need to hear from you.
Invite your government representatives for a lab tour. As scientists, we sometimes take for granted that everyone knows what a lab is like. They don’t. But you can give policymakers an opportunity to see science behind the scenes and offer a powerful story for them to tell by setting up lab tours. Pick labs with great science communicators to show your government representatives where the science happens. Again, your university’s government relations office is a great resource for getting started.
Volunteer. Volunteering with organizations that support causes important to scientists provides a chance to engage with the broader community and make science visible. There are many ways to find these organizations. In our case, our science advocacy symposium will include an outreach fair as a way to connect our science community with local nonprofit science organizations looking for volunteers.
Host a science cafe. These events provide a platform for scientists to share their work and engage in conversation with nonscientists at local restaurants. Universities need community allies to stand with us, and science cafes offer a fun starting point for building these relationships.
Make science visual. Share cool images of science happening at your university on your social media platforms. Scientists and nonscientists alike are curious creatures, so catch people’s interest with a striking image and use a caption to explain the science behind it.
Share your voice on Twitter. Since the election, we have significantly increased our Twitter activity to share science policy and advocacy news, events, and opportunities. Twitter is a powerful tool with immediate impact that we can harness to connect with a broad scientific community and take part in the national conversation on science. (Remember the trending successes of #USofScience and #actuallivingscientist?) It has also helped us gain visibility within our own university and with organizations in our area.