How Can Scientific Organizations Support Science Advocacy? 5 Ways to Get Started

May 11, 2021
Christos Bacharakis/Flickr
Rose Hendricks
Program Director for the Society Civic Science Initiative

Scientists have many reasons to organize, mobilize, and advocate — whether it’s to stand up for democracy and voting rights, to push for evidence-informed solutions to threats like climate change or the COVID-19 pandemic, or to demand structural changes that make the scientific enterprise itself more inclusive and anti-racist. In recent years, more scientists have used their voices to advocate for changes like these and many others. 

Just as research provides the basis for many scientists’ advocacy goals, it can provide a basis for their movement-building strategies as well. A recent strategy brief developed by the UCS Science Advocacy Working Group distills recommendations for using insights from the social sciences to increase the effectiveness of science advocacy and public engagement.

Beyond articulating recommendations for individuals, the brief also articulates opportunities for scientific organizations like societies and professional associations to support science advocacy and public engagement. Many of these organizations have been supporting researchers in their professional lives for decades, while working to advance their respective discipline and ensure that the research conducted benefits society. As a result, societies have strong networks of experts who can weigh in on a technical topic, relationships with federal policymakers and agencies, and strong reputations both within the scientific enterprise and outside. 

What can organizations do to support science advocacy? Here are some promising possibilities:

  • Enact policies to make their discipline and organization more anti-racist and anti-sexist. Codes of conduct and visible responses to violations are two ways of doing this. Other opportunities include making travel grants available to researchers who might not otherwise be able to attend career-enhancing conferences and auditing practices and outcomes for the awards they offer, to examine whether the recognition reifies the status quo or makes the field more equitable and inclusive.
  • Enhance researchers’ ability to conduct research that can inform policies and address communities’ priorities. Scientific societies can offer training, grants, and networking opportunities to advance science professionals’ ability to conduct research grounded in equity. AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange is one example of a program that helps scientists build long-term relationships with communities to partner on research that benefits the community.
  • Build relationships with policymakers at all levels and establish their organizations as trusted sources of information. Scientific associations frequently maintain relationships with federal policymakers and agency staff, and they create opportunities for scientists to meet with members of Congress to discuss their work and shared priorities. Because there are many more state and local policymakers than federal, it can be a challenge for these organizations to build the same kinds of relationships at these levels. But by partnering with groups like Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) or the National Science Policy Network (NSPN), and by leveraging their members’ existing relationships with local policymakers, scientific societies can greatly expand their connections.
  • Mobilize members to participate in advocacy and public engagement. Science organizations can leverage their resources and expertise to create tangible opportunities for researchers to engage, like setting up meetings with policymakers or building relationships with diverse communities. Then, they can tap into their membership to invite scientists to take advantage of those opportunities and help shape new ones. 
  • Celebrate scientists’ public engagement and advocacy efforts and make them visible. Because science organizations tend to have large audiences and strong reputations, they have a unique opportunity to share the stories and successes of researchers who engage with policymakers and communities. This has multiple benefits: First, it can affirm the researchers, providing much-deserved credit and visibility, in addition to opportunities and connections that result from the visibility. Second, when societies elevate positive examples of engagement and advocacy, they signal to the research community more broadly that these efforts are valuable. This is an important component of a broader culture change, toward a scientific community that holistically supports and values engagement

For researchers, it may not always be clear how to leverage science organizations to boost the impact of organizing, engagement, or advocacy efforts. To begin understanding the landscape in your particular discipline, you might start by becoming a member of a scientific society and looking for opportunities to join committees. Many associations have committees focused on policy, public engagement, awards, and early career members. By joining one of these, you can learn about ways the organization has attempted to support advocacy or engagement in the past and what it currently does. 

You can also introduce your ideas for increasing the organization’s support of these activities. If there aren’t committee opportunities, you can ask a staff member or volunteer leaders what’s been done in the past, what opportunities they see for expanding, and how you might pursue any specific ideas you have for the organization. In many cases, societies are eager to support scientist-driven efforts and can help get these off the ground by sharing their expertise, communications channels, and connections within and outside the scientific enterprise. 

Although the Biden administration has been much more eager to prioritize science in the decision-making process than the previous administration, the need for scientists to organize and advocate for equitable uses of science in society remains high. Science remains an exclusive institution, producing innovations and insights that are not shared equitably across society. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take far too many lives. And the Earth continues to warm at an alarming pace. As scientists continue to embrace their roles as global citizens and community members through public engagement and advocacy, scientists and science organizations will both benefit from working together to ensure that science is used to ensure a better world for all.