On Tuesday, September 20, CaSP hosted our first event of the year — a kickoff panel! We invited experts from around campus in all kinds of disciplines under the umbrella of science policy:
- Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD, is an associate professor of pediatrics at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and directs its MD-MPH program. He is the founding medical director of Reach Out and Read Wisconsin, and advocates locally and nationally for early literacy and healthy child brain development.
- Kelly Tyrrell started as a graduate student in biochemistry at UW, and after a AAAS Mass Media fellowship at the Chicago Tribune and a journalism stint in Delaware, she’s now a science writer for the University, where she’s been involved in communicating critical science issues to both the general public and state legislators.
- Aaron Hoskins, PhD, is an assistant professor in biochemistry, studying the spliceosome, an important component in gene regulation. He played a key role in organizing a workshop on campus to address problems with the US biomedical research workforce, and works to raise awareness of science policy issues.
- Jason Fletcher, PhD, is a professor at the La Follette school, with appointments in Sociology, Applied Economics and Population Health sciences. His work has combined genetics and social science approaches to study the long-term consequences of childhood mental illness and craft policy to reduce it.
As you can see, this was a pretty diverse group — the one thing all panelists had in common was an interdisciplinary bent!
We like to talk about how really, there are two kinds of “science policy” — science for policy, and policy for science. Dipesh and Jason use science to help inform public policy, while Aaron works on policy that could improve science. Kelly does both, by informing the public about how science affects their lives, and helping legislators understand the ins and outs of research at UW.
After we got acquainted with the speakers, a couple of themes emerged during the discussion that followed. For one thing, some of our guests had been affected by each others’ work. Aaron described how big a deal the controversy surrounding the use of fetal tissue research was for his department. State legislators, who at first were uncertain about the specifics of such research, came close to criminalizing that work in ways that arguably would affect a lot of scientists doing largely unrelated science. Kelly helped clarify what the research actually entailed, and what it hoped to achieve, in ways that prevented serious damage to the University’s ability to do cutting-edge biomedical research — including Aaron and his colleagues.
Jason contended, and all panelists agreed, that for science to reach the public there needs to be “connective tissue” between the lab and the statehouse, and that making such interdisciplinary connections is mostly a matter of persistence. Many professionals may lack the time or interest to forge working relationships of this kind, but finding those that do makes it worth the effort — and can improve day-to-day research by placing benchwork in a broader perspective.
Another point of consensus: communicating science to non-experts requires telling a story, and a willingness to keep telling it until it sticks. Dipesh described how, at a visit to Capitol Hill, the info packet he left with legislative staff contained a Doctor’s prescription to read — and when he returned a year later, the staffers remembered him, his note, and the points he wanted to make because of the impression that “prescription” made. Kelly noted that saying the same thing over and over again may feel embarrassing to a scientist, but each time you say it in a public forum, somebody new will hear it for the first time.
Finally, the panel agreed that science students need to be learning NOW about how to advocate for their work. There’s never been a better time to take charge of getting your research out there, and learning about how to use it as a force for good. Aaron suggested that as a matter of research policy, more training grants need to include components for policy, advocacy, and outreach, so as to avoid penalizing students — or incentivizing their advisors to penalize them — for taking time out from lab to acquire these skills. Dipesh and Jason said that having another hat, being a specialist with “connective tissue,” added value to your resume and your department, and Kelly encouraged the audience to advocate in their departments, or to the graduate school, for the opportunity to do interdisciplinary work.
Overall, it was a really fun and informative evening. We’d like to offer a big thank-you to each of our panelists for sharing so many insights — and we hope to see you all at our next events this semester!
Mark your calendars: