About 12 years ago, in the basement of a poorly-attended Jewish temple in upstate New York surrounded by stale goldfish crackers and glasses of apple juice, my 15-year-old self was torn between listening to Al Gore’s video-taped message that climate change was the biggest issue of our time and not wanting to be persuaded by anyone about anything, especially not in a semi-religious setting. Since then, I’ve pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in ecology, worked on several studies documenting the effects of climate change on the natural ecosystem, and taught courses on climate change and environmental sciences to challengingly politically diverse classes of students in the Midwest. In retrospect, Al Gore (with backup from sad, skinny polar bears floating on melting ice to melancholy music) did make a serious impression on that 15-year-old.
But in the past 10 years, emissions and temperatures have continued to rise and politicians continue to face a stalemate on climate change, particularly in the United States. So, near the end of my master’s degree program, I was ready to try something else—political advocacy. I saw a posting about the UCS Science Network Mentor Program and thought, what the heck, I should give it a go.
Diving into science advocacy
As I was thinking about my science advocacy interests, I realized I had spent the last three years studying soils and knew that they were a fairly non-controversial way to sequester carbon while increasing sustainability in other areas. My plan was to forge ahead and advocate for soil health in Nebraska. A long move and thesis defense later, I was meeting with an excellent scientist advocate mentor in a café in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, head spinning with ideas for how I was going to be the great pioneering advocate for soil health in the Midwest.
Six months later, I’ve learned a lot, including that advocacy does not always play out as planned. Believe it or not, strategic advocacy is hard! It is something that you have to learn, and it requires time, mental energy, and a willingness to put yourself in a position where people might get angry with you, or worse, you might declare something and become a good student’s worst nightmare—publicly wrong. Furthermore, I was missing three major things that would have made advocacy much, much easier—a clear vision of what I wanted to do (turns out that Corporate America’s obsession with SMART goals isn’t as misguided as many of their other ideas), a local group (not just one person) of other advocates who could help and encourage me, and a network of people who could direct me to the right person of influence.
By some metrics, I failed (my first failure since I got an “E” for effort in handwriting). But the thing is, opportunities to advocate for science-based decision making are always ongoing, the key is finding the path to advocacy that works for you.
I also learned: 1) Don’t take people working on science advocacy and communication for granted. Seriously, what they do is hard! 2) It is helpful to have a well-established network and a clear vision of what you want to do. Attempting to change the political landscape in a region you just moved to with a few spare hours on weekends may be a smidge too ambitious. 3) Trying to do too much isn’t helpful—you are much better off using a call script to call your representative than you are trying to do something massive and being paralyzed with fear and indecision. 4) At this point in my life, spearheading a science advocacy campaign more or less on my own might not be for me. I may try something (more manageable) again in the future once I’ve become more established somewhere (and the resources provided to me by the Science Network Mentor Program have left me positioned to be much more successful next time).
There is always more time to figure out what kind of science outreach and advocacy works for you, and to plug into the communities fighting for our collective future that will sustain you as an advocate for the long-term.
Jessica recently graduated from the University of Toledo with a M.S. in soil ecology. She currently lives in Lincoln, Nebraska where she is taking a sabbatical from academia and working in biotech.
Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.
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