The Penn State Science Policy Society: Filling the Gap Between Science and Community

Jared Mondschein, Theresa Kucinski, Grayson Doucette, , UCS | December 6, 2017, 2:51 pm EST
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Graduate school. It’s where generations of scientists have been trained to become independent scientists. More than 60 hours per week spent in lab, countless group meetings, innumerable hours spent crunching data and writing manuscripts and proposals that are filled with scientific jargon.

Unfortunately, it’s this jargon that prevents scientists from effectively communicating their science to the non-technical audiences that need it. Penn State’s Science Policy Society aims to bridge this gap by helping current graduate students and post-doctoral fellows learn how to bring their research into the community.

We occupy an important niche at Penn State as we continue to educate members of the Penn State community about the connection between our research and public policy, with a dedicated focus on science advocacy. We are helping our future scientists translate their stories and make connections with community members and policy makers.

Identifying a gap between science and community

Penn State researcher Dr. Michael Mann discussing the science behind climate change at Liberty Craft House in downtown State College.

Early on, we recognized a growing disconnect between the local State College community and the groundbreaking research occurring at Penn State. A growing desire within the Science Policy Society became apparent. Our members wanted to help our fellow community members, but we didn’t have the skills or the relationships within the community. We began to plan events to address this problem, looking to others who have fostered strong community ties as guides.

We began our relationship with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in March 2016 when Liz Schmitt and Dr. Jeremy Richardson came to Penn State to discuss UCS’s efforts to promote science-community partnerships. In May 2016, SPS members traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with UCS staff for science advocacy training. With the help of UCS, we have been able to begin to build our own community relationships. We started with Science on Tap, a monthly public outreach event designed to showcase Penn State science in a casual downtown bar setting. By having leaders in science-community partnerships to guide us, we have been able to begin our own journey into outreach.

Science & Community: A panel event

While our Science on Tap events were successful, we still felt there was still a gnawing gap between Penn State science and our local community. The local news was filled with science-related issues in State College and the surrounding central Pennsylvania region, but it wasn’t obvious how science was being used to help decision makers. We recognized an urgent need to learn how other scientists use their science to help, or even become, activists that fight for their local community.

The Science Policy Society panel discussion on Science & Community. From left to right: Dr. David Hughes, Dr. Maggie Douglas, and Dr. Thomas Beatty.

On September 14, 2017, the Science Policy Society partnered with the Union of Concerned Scientists to organize an event called “Science & Community.” Taking place at the Schlow Centre Region Library, the event was a panel discussion focused on how scientists and community activists can work together. The event featured three Penn State researchers: Dr. Maggie Douglas and Dr. David Hughes from the Department of Entomology, and Dr. Thomas Beatty from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Dr. Douglas works closely with local beekeepers and farmers to promote pollinator success, while Dr. Hughes is a leading member of the Nittany Valley Water Coalition, an organization that aims to protect the water of State College and the farmland it flows under. Dr. Beatty is a member of Fair Districts PA and speaks across central Pennsylvania about gerrymandering.

All three of these scientists saw problems in their community and decided to take action. Even more remarkable, most of these issues are outside their areas of scientific expertise. Astronomers typically aren’t trained in political science, but that did not stop Dr. Thomas Beatty from applying his statistical toolset to impartial voter redistricting. Same with Drs. Hughes and Douglas, who took their expertise into the community to help farmers and beekeepers protect their livelihoods.

Lessons learned

Easily the most important lesson that we learned from this Science & Community panel event was how hard it is for scientists to move into the local community and begin these conversations and partnerships. There was an overwhelming sense that the majority of the scientists in attendance did not feel comfortable using their scientific expertise to engage on local community issues. The reasons were numerous, but seemed to focus on (1) not knowing how to translate their science so that it is useful for non-specialists and (2) not having enough room in their schedule.

Moving forward, the Science Policy Society is aiming to address these concerns as we work towards filling the void between Penn State science and the surrounding communities. For example, we will be hosting science communication workshops to train scientists on how to strip jargon from their story of scientific discovery. Additionally, a panel event currently being planned for Spring 2018 aims to discuss how science and religion are not mutually exclusive, and will show how scientists can work with religious organizations and leaders to promote evidence based decision-making.

Graduate students looking to help their community are not given the necessary tools needed to do so. Hours spent in lab and at conferences talking only in scientific jargon leaves many unable to talk about their science to the general public. The Science Policy Society is filling this need by providing an outlet for scientists to learn communication and advocacy skills and begin to build relationships with community members and policy makers. With help from scientists and science outreach professionals, we are fostering science and community partnerships in State College and throughout central Pennsylvania.

 

Jared Mondschein is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. He was born and raised near New York City and earned a B.S. in chemistry from Union College in 2014. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Penn State University, where he studies materials that convert sunlight into fuels and value-added chemical feedstocks. You can find him on Twitter @JSMondschein.

Theresa Kucinski is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. She was born and raised in northern New Jersey, earning her A.S. in chemistry at Sussex County Community College in 2014 and B.A. in chemistry from Drew University in 2016. She currently studies atmospheric chemistry at Penn State University as a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry.

Grayson Doucette is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. He was born into a military family, growing up in a new part of the globe every few years. He earned his B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering at Virginia Tech in 2014, continuing on to Penn State’s graduate program. At PSU, his research has focused on photovoltaic materials capable of pairing with current solar technologies to improve overall solar cell efficiency. You can find him on Twitter @GS_Doucette.

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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