Science Policy as an Academic

Research and science policy are not two discrete fields; in fact, they are endlessly intertwined. Policy can solve the world’s problems with its unique ability to provide the resources to make solutions available for everyone who needs them, while at the same time funding the research that determines these solutions . These two fields cannot be separated, so it is only logical that there should be a way to conduct research and concurrently practice science policy. 

I have always been interested in the nexus of science policy and research, but it has taken me many years to figure out the right balance for me. Ultimately, I want to work in research but do a little policy work on the side. It turns out that this is practical and easier than you might think. This post will go over the three most common questions I am asked when fellow scientists are hoping to involve themselves in policy work: 1. What is science policy? 2. What skills are needed to be effective in the field? 3. How do I go about finding opportunities?

What is Science Policy?

When I first heard of science policy work, I envisioned having to fly to Washington, D.C. to talk with Senators and draft a thousand page document that eventually gets turned into a bill. This was not my idea of a good time. However, science policy is much more broad than just crafting national legislation, which makes it extremely hard to define. In general, science policy experts work to bridge the gap between researchers and the public. This involves translating highly technical scientific issues into policy that is effective and easily communicated. My first foray into policy work was as a volunteer with an organization in New Orleans, LA advocating for safer bikeways in the city. We synthesized research from transportation experts, civil engineers, and urban planners and created a campaign to make streets safe for all users. We met with engineers from the city’s department of public works to implement a policy, based on our research, to consider all modes of transportation (walking, biking, and driving) when streets needed to be renovated.

What Skills are Needed?

Science policy balances financial responsibility, marketability of the solution, public interest, and political power, making science just one aspect of a larger picture. Being able to understand all of the drivers to create a viable solution is necessary to this type of work. Graduate school teaches many of the skills necessary to take on these challenges such as the abilities to think critically, question effectively, interpret data, and present research. 

When I joined an organization to advocate for better water infrastructure in the city where I lived, I was worried that I would not have the skills necessary to be effective even though I was in the middle of a master’s degree of civil engineering. It turns out my worry was mostly unfounded. The biggest strength any researcher can bring to the policy field is a deep understanding of the science. I used my scientific knowledge to make sure any policy for which we advocated would reduce flooding in our city. In areas I was not as well versed, such as public opinion and government funding, I asked important questions of the area experts to develop my understanding in those fields and drive the conversation forward.

There are some areas where graduate programs don’t prepare you for policy work, primarily science communication. Initially I was not good at communicating with people who were not scientists. I used too much jargon and did not simplify enough for the general audience, but with practice and attending trainings, I improved. If you are worried about communication or do not know the basics of how policy is created, take a look at our earlier blog post “Getting Your Foot in the Door” to find workshops and colloquiums to jump-start your policy work. 

What Opportunities are Available?

The first thing you need to do is find an issue that interests you. This should be an area you are comfortable discussing, but it does not have to be your direct area of research. As hydrologists (and anyone else who is reading this blog), the issue of climate change is at the forefront of our minds. Within this broad field there are traditional scientific topics like clean water and air quality, but other topics interact with these areas like environmental justice and funding for climate research and green jobs. 

There are a plethora of opportunities to involve yourself in science policy work, ranging from a few hours to year long commitments. Some easy ways to start is to attend a local city council meeting and maybe even make a comment as a community member. You can also join a structured advocacy day. Most public universities have an advocacy day where you go to the state congress to advocate for university funding. A larger step would be that quintessential policy I previously mentioned by joining AGU on a congressional visit day in Washington to discuss issues with lawmakers. Joining an advocacy group will get you involved with policy makers. This can be a local group in your city or a national or international group such as the Sierra Club. You can also volunteer for local boards, commissions, and working groups for your local city or for the state government. For example, I am serving on a community working group to update the city’s comprehensive stormwater and flood management plan. All it took for my participation was a short application and a commitment to meet once a month. 

If all of this seems outside of your comfort zone, there are ways to make your research more influential to inform public policy. First, simply conduct high quality research that is relevant and readable for people who are not in your immediate field. Create a website and social media platform to share your research and upcoming projects and routinely engage with public officials about your research. This can lead to opportunities to partner with the government when they receive grants or to be invited to serve on certain boards. 

Finally, if you want a more immersive policy experience check out our post on Science Policy Fellowship Opportunities for up to year long positions in policy.

By: Dylan Blaskey find him @DBlaskey on Twitter

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