Five Lessons Our Science Network Watchdogging Teams Have Taught Us

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | January 16, 2018, 4:12 pm EST
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It is one year since the Presidential inauguration, though to many of us it now seems like time is measured in dog years—each approximates seven in our own lifetimes. The election really energized the science community and many others to push back against the hateful rhetoric and frightening agenda of the president and his administration.

That rhetoric too often embodies racism, misogyny, homophobia, and divisiveness. And the agenda has valued big business interests over the public interest across the board, withdrawing public health, safety and environmental protections to boost corporate profits.

Here at UCS, we called on our Science Network to help us respond to a broad range of attacks on science as part of the new Administration’s agenda. The response has been wonderful and we have a lot to show for it. Not everyone has the time or inclination to take on the challenges of advocating for science on a regular and sustained basis, but over 1,000 of our Science Network members have so far stepped up for this higher level of engagement. I don’t mean to say they are the only ones fighting back, but these individuals have agreed to be on “watchdogging” teams around the country to speak out at a local level, engage their elected representatives, and serve as focal points for bringing science into the debates over public policy.  These teams have become partners in the fight, and from them we have learned many important lessons. Here are my top five:

Constituency and local knowledge matter

Our watchdogging team members speak to their elected officials, and to their communities, as neighbors and constituent voters. And despite all the concerns that people may have about our political culture, constituency still matters to elected officials. That doesn’t mean that an official will always do what you ask, but you will at least be heard.

Team members also understand local issues and challenges, as well as local politics, that it would be hard for a national organization like UCS to gather in any other way. That local and regional perspective helps everyone in the science community to build our knowledge and our story-bank of the impacts of attacks on science on people all across the country.

Our neighbors, too, are often more receptive to information over the back fence or on the front steps from someone who lives nearby than from the expert from far away. Letters to the editor in a local paper can have as much or more impact than pieces published in national press. More than 80 of our watchdogging Science Network members have published letters or op-eds, and that is building more recognition of key science issues at a local level. Letters to elected officials in various states (Maine, Montana, Missouri, Nevada, and North Dakota) and nationally have had over 5,000 signatories. And hundreds of personal calls have been made to Senate and House members offices.

UCS Legislative Associate Amy Gutierrez and Campaign Manager Danielle Fox guiding summit participants in finding connections between local issues and federal policy (Missoula, MT), August 25, 2017.

So, when our watchdogging team members meet with their representatives—dozens of times now over the last six months—they have a chance to get up close and personal. With a little support from us, they are delivering strong messages to fight those attacks on science that might seem obscure, but when brought into a local setting can really take on new importance. Like the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would so bog down the regulatory process that even if new threats to the public are identified, it would be almost impossible to develop new protections. Or defeating really terrible nominations to science positions in key agencies, like Sam Clovis and Michael Dourson. Letters and emails from more than 4,000 scientists and calls from hundreds more helped turn the tide against these appointments.

Scientists have a lot to say

In our training as scientists we tend to focus on gaining fundamental skills in our discipline, but along the way, we all build our knowledge of how science itself works.  That means, as a marine scientist, I can certainly talk about my area of expertise, but I can also talk about the process by which science informs policy broadly across many science disciplines. And I can explain what the scientific method means, how peer review and other quality control and feedback mechanisms work, and why scientific evidence is so very different from a political opinion. More than that, it is pretty easy for me to look at data, graphs and evidence in a variety of fields and understand the basic messages even if I am not deeply engaged in that field of research.

All of that can be helpful in talking to officials and fellow residents, and in writing for a broader audience. The point is, scientists can speak out knowledgeably on issues beyond our own fields of study and have a lot to bring into a discussion of public policy. Many scientists are learning for themselves how helpful their voices can be in the public debate. For example, when Sen. Blunt (R. MO) introduced a bill to roll back progress on vehicle fuel economy standards, scientists and other concerned citizens went to meet with Sen. Donnelly’s staff (D. IN) to voice their opposition. They weren’t all automotive engineers or air pollution scientists, but they could talk about the bills misguided approach to fuel economy.

A little training goes a long way

For many experts, skills such as communicating with non-scientists, the media and a broader public don’t come naturally. We are trained to communicate to scientific audiences in our own fields. But in a public or political setting, the challenge is to be clear about the major lines of scientific evidence and their broader meaning or implication. That’s a skill we can learn, much as we have learned the other skills that make for good scientists.

So too is learning how to engage with elected officials, or journalists or media editors, or community organizations. We have been offering training and mentoring in all of these topics, and Science Network members have responded. Our 12 training workshops have reached 1184 members this past year. Our monthly calls regularly have 50 or more participating. Our state scientists’ summits in Montana, Nevada, Maine and Missouri, collectively had more than 100 participants.

Outreach Coordinator Jessica Thomas explaining the UCS Watchdog campaign with summit participants (Reno, NV), September 23, 2017.

While the summits included training in political advocacy, these workshops primarily served as opportunities for participants to learn from each other and plan actions to take on the state level. With that beginning, the sky’s the limit. Science Network members have co-authored compelling op-eds on the importance of science in our democracy, and held effective meetings with their Congressional delegations, despite doing it for the first time.

To find the best recruiters, look in the mirror

Having 1,000 scientists watchdogging is great, but the network needs to grow with a substantial capacity to self-organize to take action. That’s because to have a sustained impact on our democracy, scientists need to be active and engaged in the public discourse in as many places, in as many communities and issues as possible, not just while Trump is in office but going forward too. We are here to provide resources on issues where we can, as well as financial support through our Science for the Public Good small grants, and our Science and Democracy Fellowships (coming soon).

But it is Science Network members themselves that can help recruit more colleagues, in their states, to Stand Up for Science. They are best placed to know who has the passion and the commitment to be involved in this work, and they have made connections with wonderful local advocates we might never have known. They know how to reach the people in their states who make the decisions that affect their communities. And since the election, 4500 new members have come into our network looking for ways to get involved. We need everyone to get involved and to learn from each other. It’s about the role of science in democracy—and that impacts every person in the country.

Advocating for science feels good too

I hope we are past the old debates about whether advocating for what you believe compromises your ability to do science. It doesn’t. A friend of mine, a scientist deeply involved in the fight for environmental justice, once said, “You need to feed that other part of your brain too. The part that cares about the world, your neighbors, and the legacy we leave. That part that makes you want to advocate for what’s right.” We can still do our work as scientists and at the same time stand up for science. Everyone’s action may not look the same, but everyone needs to speak up.

We’ve heard from Science Network members how exciting it was to speak up for their community’s best interests in the public realm—and that it was easier than they had thought. And we have to admit that during a sometimes frustrating year, our watchdogging members consistently reminded us that this country is made up of its people, not just its politics.

So to our Science Network partners in watchdogging, thank you for all you do. Please stay involved, engaged and keep teaching us every day. Not signed up to watchdog with UCS? Join now.

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