Second Annual Science Policy Symposium: A recap

By CaSP Secretary and Social Media Manager April MacIntyre, Sam Anderson, and Kevin Lauterjung. 

CaSP Members from left to right: Caitlin Warlick-Short, Sam Anderson, April MacIntyre, and Kevin Lauterjung

On November 10, 2018, several CaSP members attended the daylong Second Annual Science Policy Symposium held at the Rockefeller University in New York City. The symposium was organized by the Science and Education Policy Association (SEPA) and the National Science Policy Network (NSPN). Following are highlights from speakers and workshops we attended throughout the day.

Federal R&D Budget Basics, talk by Erin Heath (AAAS)

Ms. Heath began her talk by showing a helpful video on the federal research budget process. She said that, in general, science spending has been increasing. Appropriations committees, when deciding where money should be spent, generally consider constituents first, then party preference, then personal preference. Regular order of the budget process rarely happens (sometimes leading to a government shutdown!), and you can follow the budget process using the AAAS R&D dashboard. Scientists can engage in the budget process by signing up for AAAS policy alerts, visiting and interacting with congress members via social media, reading a book on the subject, applying for a fellowship, or running for office. Ms. Heath also recommended a resource for teachers called Science in the Classroom from AAAS.

Panel on Puerto Rico: Rebuilding a Sustainable and Resilient Puerto Rico Through Science

The next event was a panel on Puerto Rican science, both about its recovery after Hurricane Maria, and the steps taken to reinforce academic and island infrastructure.

Giovanna Guerrero works for Ciencia Puerto Rico, a group that, post-Hurricane Maria, built networks of scientists to address areas of need in Puerto Rico (PR), provided resource information on their website for donations for students and scientists, organized public health campaigns, and provided policy updates for grants and funding. Post-hurricane, Ciencia PR was able to organize aid for scientists for space and materials, lobbied for the natural disaster casualty count to be taken seriously and calculated accurately, and documented as tenacious and resilient Puerto Rican scientists turned hardship into research opportunities. Dr. Guerrero believes that in the future it will be important to diversity sources of energy in PR, with a focus on renewables, and that scientists need to become more actively involved in politics.

Juan Ramírez Lugo, from the University of PR and the AAAS Caribbean Division, spoke about the role of scientific societies and networks in disaster relief efforts. He painted a dark picture of the destruction Hurricane Maria left behind (the cost of the damage was a third of PR’s GDP, far higher than Texas and Florida at 5.2 and 6.3%), but continued with a more positive story about the hurricane relief grants program. This program provided funds to graduate students who were within a year of completion of the program and intent on a teaching/research career in the Caribbean. The grants also helped established scientists with restocking, repairing, rehabilitation, and temporary relocation to continue projects outside of the Caribbean. Dr. Ramírez said that next step is for scientists to speak out and educate, and that if we don’t take action now, we will settle for less later.

Frances Colón, a PR native and former adviser for the US Department of State, discussed her role in San Juan’s designation as a Resilient City through the Rockefeller Foundation. This program aims to ready San Juan for future climate change challenges. Dr. Colón also discussed the PR big ideas challenge, which helped establish a seed bank in the mountains for agricultural recovery after natural disasters. Dr. Colón stressed that the best way to prepare for the future is to apply for funds from public foundations, elect good people, and put pressure on the political powers that be.

Science Advocacy 101 by Melissa Varga and Hannah Silverfine from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)

While much of the symposium focused on important issues and how scientists should get involved civically, the UCS workshop started from the position of, “Ok, I’m convinced. I want to get involved. What’s the best way to do that?” UCS representatives Melissa and Hannah took up this call, helping us discern which factors to consider to maximize our efforts. For example, much of the workshop focused on identifying and qualifying the stakeholders around an issue, establishing concrete and quantifiable goals to execute, and creating assessments of effectiveness.

We applied these lessons to a case study currently on the UCS agenda regarding perfluoroalkyl substance (PFA) contamination of drinking water, especially on military bases. Our task was to determine an immediate goal for action while considering the stakeholders and relevant variables. While we did not reach a consensus on the best path forward, we all gained a much better sense of the obstacles to effective civic engagement. There are so many factors in play—the vast majority of which we ignored in our case study for simplicity—and navigating this world can be overwhelming, especially for uninitiated scientists. This is why it is important for organizations like UCS, with accumulated wisdom and resources, to exist.

Science, Technology, and Innovation: a Powerful Engine for International Development, talk by Dr. Dalal Najib

Dr. Dalal Najib was the first speaker of the day to introduce the recurring topic of science diplomacy. Dr. Najib’s interests in public policy solidified when she realized her research interests in space engineering did not align with common issues developing countries face. Following a Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, she started working at the Development, Security, and Cooperation Unit at the National Academies of Sciences. NAS is an effective group because of its talented, numerous member body, good reputation, and the pro bono nature of service its members provide. Dr. Najib’s internationally focused group’s responsibilities include strategizing ways to respond to global challenges, building international relationships and programs, and advising the US government. More recently, Dr. Najib has focused on the Middle East where her group builds collaborations with young researchers and institutions, empowers young scientists in leadership roles, and hosts symposiums. She is also enhancing the capacity of African science academies, partially by making it easier to use USAID money to fund scientific endeavors. Dr. Najib suggested the best way get involved in something similar to her work is to join the activities at the NAS, register and sign up for the webcast, apply for the Mirzayan fellowship, and serve as a committee member or a reviewer.

Civically Engaged Science, talk by Frances Colón

If Dr. Najib was the first speaker to introduce the idea of science diplomacy, then Dr. Colón was the person to supply a formal definition. Science diplomacy is the intersection of foreign policy and science policy, and it is a tool most often used by NGOs and the government. The field is important for several reasons. First, the values of science are similar to functioning democratic values (transparency, rationalism) and it is important to spread these values. Second, science diplomacy can be used to solve global challenges, not just domestic challenges. And third, science diplomacy is useful for engaging people in a non-political way when politics are sensitive. Dr. Colón worked for the Office of the Science and Technology within the US Department of State where she accomplished a variety of tasks, including engaging with Cuban scientists when US-Cuba relations thawed during the Obama Administration. Dr. Colón left her government job when Trump was elected because she wanted the freedom to speak her mind. The Office has since let go of many of its scientists and seems to be in hiatus. To get involved with science policy, Dr. Colón suggested science blogging, starting a science policy group (done!), creating a podcast, knocking on doors for representatives, writing a book, running for office, or an active presence on social media.

Stressing Science in Stressful Surroundings: Debating Basic Science Concepts in Unfavorable Environments, workshop led by Dr. Avital Percher of NSPN

In the afternoon, some of us attended a wild workshop by Avital Percher about science communication. Dr. Percher wasted no time in telling us that the problem with communicating science is not from a lack of information, but differences in values. Basically, no matter what the facts are or what science says, people are going to bend the narrative to fit what they want to believe. This, Dr. Percher says, means that science communication needs to be about both conveying information, and finding strategies to convey that information in a way that speaks to people who do not agree with you. Scientists need to pay attention to values (what does the scientist value, and how does this align with those of the person you are speaking to), reframing (are you arguing about actual science or about a broader concept i.e. climate change vs. American energy dependence), and emotions (use your counterintuition, do you care about similar things the person you are talking to does i.e. children?).

To practice using these three skills, Dr. Percher had us choose communication prompts (climate change, GMOs, etc.), then try to reframe these arguments to changing groups of audiences. He upped the ante throughout the workshop by including distractions (flying objects), and encouraging people to interrupt when the ‘scientist’ was making their point. Overall, this was a challenging and rewarding workshop, and we walked out feeling more ready than ever for Thanksgiving dinner conversations with family.

Students for Science Policy Poster Session

A major goal of the NSPN Symposium was for students to have an opportunity to interact with one another to address local and national issues they care about. The poster session was a vibrant event where many groups shared their work in science policy. CaSP’s poster detailed the various activities we perform in our local communities, including our work in state-level forensic science reform. Other groups created databases of science policy information, or established science policy fellowships at the state level. At this event, CaSP members connected with other Midwesterners on regional issues like farming, and the preservation of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. CaSP hopes that the connections we made during the poster session, and throughout the symposium, will result in regional collaborations and events.

Scientists in the Policy World, plenary lecture by Dr. Keri-Ann Jones

Our final session of the day was led by Dr. Keri-Ann Jones of the Pew Charitable Trusts, formerly an Assistant Secretary at the US Department of State. Dr. Jones was another speaker who stressed the political and strategic importance of science diplomacy, and presented a long list of advice regarding things she had learned during her extensive career.

Dr. Jones said that attitudes towards science change with every administration; some politicians use the science and technology policy offices as a way to form political strategies, and others take it more seriously and use it the offices to form long term goals. Either way, it is important for science representatives to sit at the table when appropriations are negotiating the budget. Dr. Jones stressed that scientists need to be prepared for the shock of the policy world; attitudes change wildly between administrations and you have limited time to accomplish big goals. Additionally, there are three big parts to policy: policy development, policy decisions, and policy implementation. However, Dr. Jones said that if you want a policy to continue, what you need is strong program evaluation from the beginning.

Dr. Jones said she learned a lot from lawyers, including the wisdom that you do not have to agree with everything, and you stay as long as you can agree with as much as you can. She admitted that there are not a lot of scientists in government, unless you have grassroots campaigns or unless you’re appointed. And, when you are a scientist in the policy world, you are both no longer treated like a scientist from the science community, and policy people treat you like a science outsider. Dr. Jones also cut to the point by arguing that science is considered a special interest since we lobby for certain things, and, when we become advocates, communication is that much more difficult and important.

The overall themes of the symposium were the importance of scientists getting more involved in the political process, how to communicate more effectively, networking with other science policy groups, and science diplomacy as an important tool and potential career path for young scientists.