Research, telescopes, and computer models may consume the thoughts of many STEM graduate students, but do you ever find yourself distracted by current events? Are you ever caught up in conversations about how to fix problems in society? Have you ever “geeked out” about research that influences laws or policy? If you’re a graduate student and this sounds familiar, you have options: 1) ignore your burning desire to do something or 2) start a science policy group.
Assuming you’re considering option 2, the first and most common question you will have to tackle personally and externally is “What is science policy?”
Defining science policy
In short, it refers to the rules and regulations that govern the scientific workforce or the use of science to inform rules and regulations. After starting a science policy group in graduate school, myself and other graduate student members began to realize the nebulousness of this definition. Meeting with many policy professionals, we realized saying “I want to be involved in science policy” is as specific as saying “I want to be involved in science”.
You should determine what ways and which topics you would like to focus on for your science policy engagement. There is advocacy (addressing legislators), diplomacy (international policy efforts), education (science communication & awareness initiatives), and of course policy (informing or crafting rules and regulations). Using these approaches, there are many challenges you could address (e.g. scientific workforce issues, specific issues such as climate change or infectious diseases, STEM education, etc). As federal agencies, scientific societies and not-for profit organizations commonly focus significant portions of their resources on science policy efforts, it signals the scale of the issues, and shows it may take more than one motivated person to make a significant impact (even within your community).
Gathering a team
Creating a science policy group with driven members will allow you to help more people, as well as share the credit (and workload) for grand initiatives. Seek out like-minded graduate students with an interest in creating change but also appreciate that promising students can and should be found across a variety of academic fields. This provides your group with expertise and awareness to explore a wide range of issues. For my group, we found holding introductory meetings and sending recruitment emails through our graduate student government and graduate program coordinators was an effective strategy. However, you can also rely on forming collaborations with other groups on or off campus to expand your reach for members.
When you have a core group of students, create an executive board with titles (e.g. President, Treasurer, Commander Pikachu, etc.). Not only do they sound “fancy”, but they also help in establishing an expectation of duties, which saves time when planning initiatives. Another important task is to find a faculty advisor that has experience or an academic focus within science policy. This serves to address club rules on certain campuses (which could allow your group access to funds). It also helps you tap into your advisor’s experience and network (which is particularly helpful when searching for a guest speaker for an event).
Now what do you do?
So you’ve got your group and an advisor, what do you all do now?
As many topics related to science policy are national matters, it can be difficult to figure out how your rag-tag group of students will fit into the science policy landscape. Fortunately, there are many ways to address science policy topics and your group may find some original ways to address them. Based on my experiences, these are some common approaches student groups use to address issues:
Guest speaker events—Inviting a policy expert or professional to an event your group is hosting or to a panel being held on campus is a good way to get your group’s feet wet and establish yourselves as “active”. If there is not a big presence on your campus for science policy, your initial speaking events may be more effective (and better attended) if they are geared towards a general or profiled Careers in Science Policy discussion.
Forums—Similar to guest speaker events, forums will allow your group to invite policy experts for one event to explain to the public or other experts about research, concerns, and proactive actions to address an issue. For example, the opioid epidemic is a pervasive problem within in our local community. To address this, our group planned an Opioid Epidemic Forum. We hosted a physician, a policy expert, a police officer and two New York state senators to inform and empower the Long Island community.
Consider offering additional initiatives at your event to enhance your public service. For example, at the forum we also offered a Narcan training session for participants and an excess opioid drop off box (overseen by the Suffolk County Health Department and Suffolk County Police Department, respectively).
Advocacy—Your group could also go to Washington, DC, or local in-district meetings to discuss with legislators how an issue is affecting your community and/or how it may impact the scientific workforce. Contact your university’s government relations office and ask about opportunities to talk with local or federal legislators. They are a useful resource as they often have a line of contact to legislators. Additionally, your group could fundraise to subsidize fees for members in your community to participate or travel to local initiatives or marches related to science policy.
Science outreach events—Astound and inform your local community by hosting science events for the public, or joining events to discuss (in accessible ways) about the latest research you or fellow students and professors have been working on and how it may impact the public (or why it’s important to know). You could also work with local groups to create campaigns for important unspoken issues within your community that the public could help to address.
If you are still driven to do more after hosting a few events and being active within your community, there are several steps you can take. You can use these initiatives as a template during your journey into academia to help start initiatives to improve the lives of others alongside your research.
If you are driven to make this a career, there are fellowships that can help (and in some ways are integral) with your transition into the federal government or elsewhere as a science policy expert. Some fellowships such as the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship and the President Management Fellowship are for recent (or soon-to-be) graduates. However, others including the Christine Mirzayan Fellowship are also open to students (domestic and international) who are currently in graduate school and provide them with unique experiences in the world of policy. However, there are many others—here is a full list of those offered.
Although this was only a brief summary, I hope this was helpful in informing your journey into the world of science policy.
Lyl Tomlinson is a Brooklyn, New York native who recently obtained his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. As a post-doctoral researcher, his major investigative focus relates to the effects of aerobic exercise on important support-like brain cells (oligodendrocytes). He is also a science communication professional who often asks: “Would my grandma understand this?” Using this question as a guiding principle, he competed against roughly 100 scientists and won the 2014 National NASA FameLab science communication competition, which asks researchers to explain science topics accessibly in 3 minutes. He is also a longtime associate of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and has been recognized as an “Alda All-Star”. While in graduate school, he was a co-creator and acting president of a graduate student lead science policy group, Scientists for Policy, Advocacy, Diplomacy and Education (SPADE). His work through this group gave rise to an action oriented local Opioid Epidemic Forum, an official graduate level Introduction to Science Policy course and several other initiatives. Lyl also meets with government representatives to advocate for science issues and regularly develops programs at Stony Brook to tackle problems related to scientific workforce matters. Find Lyl on Twitter at @LylT88
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