“Science Policy 101: Tackling the Barriers Between Science and Government,” A recap

“Science Policy 101: Tackling the Barriers Between Science and Government,” A recap

Article written by CaSP Secretary and Social Media Manager April MacIntyre

In September 2018, CaSP received a grant from Research!America to hold a bipartisan civic engagement event. This initiative from Research!America aimed to encourage early career scientist science policy groups to engage with candidates for the 2018 midterm elections, and to enable these groups to host outreach events to increase visibility of science policy issues in the public eye. CaSP had been brainstorming ideas for a science policy “boot camp” type event for a few months. We wanted to develop a day-long symposium to bring in and educate new members, while simultaneously sharpening the skills and knowledge of our more seasoned members. The grant from Research!America solidified these plans, and “Science Policy 101: Tackling Barriers Between Science and Government,” was born.

Hosted on Monday, October 29th, 2018 in the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union, Science Policy 101 featured several workshops/presentations, followed by a keynote session headed by the candidates for the Wisconsin Secretary of State seat. Following are recaps and reflections of the individual events.

Improvisational Techniques for Effective Communication, a workshop with Amy Zelenski

CaSP kicked off the morning with Dr. Amy Zelenski, a graduate and medical educator with a background in theater who uses improv techniques to help scientists and healthcare providers improve their communication skills. Dr. Zelenski introduced us to history and the rules of improv:

  • Agree
  • Say “yes, and…”
  • Give gifts
  • No questions
  • You know everything
  • You have everything
  • There are no mistakes

Next, we went through several exercises to highlight communication issues we face every day, but might not be aware of. An exercise where we walked around the room naming objects by real and fake names demonstrated how difficult it is to break out of certain modes of thinking. A clap game showed us how important non-verbal cues are when trying to understand each other. We tried crafting conversations with “yes, and,” “yes, but,” and “no,” responses, and found that “yes, and,” responses promoted better listening. Finally, we participated in a “half-time” activity to improve our abilities to concisely communicate our research in decreasing periods of time to a variety of audiences.

Dr. Zelenski’s workshop was a terrific, energizing way to start the day, and CaSP highly recommends that people take one of her courses.

The rules of improv as presented by Dr. Amy Zelenski.
CaSP members and Chris Pickett trying to concisely communicate their research during one of the improv exercises.

A Day in the Life of a Science Policy Analyst

Next, Chris Pickett (@ChrisPickett5), current director of the policy organization Rescuing Biomedical Research (RBR), presented on what he does as a science policy analyst, followed by a “crafting your pitch” workshop.

There were a few key takeaways from Chris’s talk. One of the issues that RBR is tackling is hyper competition. The amount of funding for trained STEM workers has plateaued, but the number of applicants entering the field is increasing steadily. This leads to hyper competition and hostile workplaces, and increases the incentive for doing bad science. One of RBR’s solutions is increasing the visibility of and decreasing the stigma surrounding preprint publications so that early career scientists can include their work on their CVs in a timely manner. Chris also suggested that to become more involved in science policy, grads and post-docs should write more, reach out to legislators, talk to people in the field via LinkedIn, work on their organizational skills, and know the difference between education, outreach, and policy.

For the breakout pitch workshop, Chris split us into six groups and had us defend increasing (or not increasing) post-doc salaries from the perspectives of postdocs, faculty, and universities. It was challenging not to infuse our pitches with our own opinions, and to frame our argument from the party we were representing. It was also difficult to find new ways to make old arguments compelling; obviously, given endless funds most people agree post-doc salaries should be increased, but in reality funds are limited. Overall this was a fairly eye-opening workshop to the challenges involved with a career in science policy advocacy.

CaSP members on a coffee break before Chris Pickett’s workshop.
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Chris Pickett helping CaSP members brainstorm how to best craft their pitch to increase postdoc salaries.

Diverse Perspectives on Local Science Issues Panel

The afternoon local science issues panel threw a lot of information at us from many different angles. The discussion covered topics such as how to engage with the public and legislators about science, what it is like to be someone who engages with science policy as part of their career, strategies for how to depoliticize science, and opinions regarding the most pressing policy issues today. A common thread throughout all of the panelists’ discussion was the primacy of strong communication skills, tips for improving the public image of scientists, and the importance of not forgetting who scientists work for (the public). Following are some of the highlights from the different panelists.

Since one of CaSP’s initiatives is the improvement of forensic science techniques and policy, it was natural for us to invite Keith Findley as a panelist. Keith is a criminal law professor at UW-Madison, co-founder of the WI Innocence Project, and part of the leadership for the Center for the Integrity of Forensic Science. His main career goals include improving the status of forensic science by making sure the techniques are scientifically sound, and minimizing bias in the field by removing it from the domain of law enforcement. He believes that forming third-party commissions like the Texas Forensic Science Commission to investigate the validity of scientific techniques will help depoliticize the field, and he thinks there need to be more people researching the cognitive biases in forensic science (a career path he would have chosen for himself if he had to do it all over again). Keith briefly discussed how television has affected perceptions of forensic science: all the CSI shows are good fun, he said, and that’s about it. He paraphrased from another colleague, “We’re not all good looking, we don’t all wear guns, and we don’t work in the dark.” Further, he stressed that there is not an answer to everything, science does not happen overnight, and answers are not always fool proof. He also mentioned the CSI effect, where juries are reluctant to convict unless there is good forensic science, or, in the opposite direction, juries will believe anything from someone in a lab coat. Keith finished by pointing out that there is more than one public perception of science, and by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that the arc of the universe bends towards justice. He hopes people will start to value real science more, and not trend towards seeing it as inconvenient when it does not fit their narrative.

CaSP member Amanda Hurley introducing the panelists.

Wisconsin state representative Deb Kolste provided the legislator viewpoint. Something that she stressed was that it is difficult to depoliticize science because there is always some monetary thing that disengages people from the realities of science. It is hard not to listen to the loudest voice when working with limited resources, she said, and science has a double burden of not only being difficult to do, but also being difficult to market and understand (i.e. the minority trying to market to the majority). She believes that there need to be more scientists in legislatures, because it is scary how often the people who make laws with real scientific and medical consequences do it based on feeling, and not empirical evidence. Rep. Kolste herself has a medical background and was key in passing several pieces of opioid regulation legislation. She advised us as scientists to be advocates no matter where we were, and to sometimes show our passion before our data.

Kristie Pulvermacher is the current Vice President of Business Development for Foxconn, a major technology company moving into WI that has become infamous for its economic incentive package, struggles with local governments, and potential environmental hazards. Ms. Pulvermacher is a big advocate for global public health and women’s rights, and believes that by working for the community in the private sector she can do more on a broader scale to advance public health goals. The most important marketable skills a scientist can have in policy are proficiency in verbal and written communication, the ability to be respectful no matter who you are interacting with, diplomacy, and the willpower to follow through with trust-building promises. When she left academia she felt like she was betraying science, but soon came to realize that knowledge is valuable in many different ways. She wants scientists to make themselves more vocal in the community and become public role models for people like her daughter.

Paul Mathewson is a staff scientist at Clean Wisconsin, a WI-centered environmental advocacy organization whose third-party status he believes is a good barrier against politicizing of science. Paul had some really great comments on science communication. First, he believes it is important for scientists to be concise when communicating to the public, and to not assume background knowledge. Second, he says that, as an environmental scientist, he needs to prioritize research to meet community needs based on what donors want done with limited resources. Connecting environmental well-being to public health issues is a good strategy. Third he stressed that, while it is really hard to communicate science the public, it is important because legislators would rather listen to their constituents than to an advocacy group.

Keynote session with Jay Schroeder and Doug La Follette

The finale to Science Policy 101 was a keynote session with candidates for WI Secretary of State Jay Schroeder (R), and current Secretary Doug La Follette (D). This session was structured as a bipartisan exposition on the duties of the office of the Secretary of the State and civic engagement (by Jay Schroeder), and the history of environmentalism in the state of WI (by Doug La Follette). The candidates were explicitly told they were not allowed to campaign, although there were a few very human moments of tension and toeing the line.

Candidate Jay Schroeder discussing civic engagement.

Jay began his career in civic engagement as a university student in Menominee where he managed to lobby successfully for the construction of a pedestrian overpass. To be involved civically, he says, you need to be educated about public issues, challenge authority, ask questions, and exercise your right to vote. Jay also stressed his commitment to environmental stewardship, and drew a connection between conservative viewpoints (keeping things the way they are), and responsible management of ecological resources. He plans to show his commitment to the environment by performing the secretarial duties of public land management. Jay finished his presentation by committing to use the office of the Secretary of State to route out election fraud, although the Wisconsin Election Commission maintains that voter fraud is rare.

Doug La Follette has a long and celebrated career in environmental activism, and started off his presentation with a brief history of conservation activism in Wisconsin. In the 1970s, NGOs did not engage in politics as much as they do now, so Doug started the group Clean Wisconsin to accomplish the political initiatives that other groups could not at the time. He believes that one of the big reasons climate change is such a politicized hot topic, and still questioned, is because of the media; think tank conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute publish non-peer-reviewed climate change studies that are incorporated into conservative media news streams to deliberately mislead voters. Additionally, he believes the media misrepresents climate science by giving equal attention to fringe climate science in an effort to avoid media “bias.” This makes it seem like the fringe science is as important as the majority of climate science that says climate change is real and human generated.

Doug ended his presentation by stressing that scientists need to interact with the public and legislators because our image is not the best. The solutions to a better public image, he says, are to go to some venue once a month where you can interact with the public (rotary club, church group, PTA), interface with local media through briefings or letters to the editor, run for the school board, and/or start electing better candidates to public office.

Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette presenting on the history of environmental activism in WI.

Overall, Science Policy 101 was informative and engaging. It brought CaSP as an organization and individuals out of our comfort zones occasionally, but we learned a lot about science communication. Get out and vote TOMORROW on November 6th if you haven’t already!