According to a 2014 study by the American Institutes for Research, less than half of STEM Ph.D. graduates are employed in academic careers. Unfortunately, by nature of pursuing our degrees in academia it is difficult to identify mentors, expand networks, or practice skills for a non-academic career during graduate school. This challenge has been recognized by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in their recent report, which calls for a broad range of changes in the graduate education enterprise to make the system more student-centric and better prepare students for careers that address global societal needs.
Thankfully many early career scientists are already taking the task into their own hands. Students and postdocs are independently questioning how to best utilize their critical thinking skills in the real world, which should come as no surprise. Having recently dedicated ourselves to answering hard questions in science, it often feels like our duty to tackle the dearth of evidence-based policy making that is increasingly plaguing our country.
In search of sustainability and support
As one of these doctoral students in pursuit of a non-academic career path, I have found the grassroots support for science communication, advocacy, and policy training to be inspiring and ever-expanding. A nationwide survey that we conducted found that of the 22 early-career science policy groups surveyed, 45% have started in the past year and a half. However, many of these groups are run by the sheer willpower of their membership. Comprised mostly of graduate students, 60% of these groups operate on meager annual budgets of $1200 or less.
This is especially disappointing considering that there is significant public support for this: a Research!America survey showed that 84% of Americans believe that it is important for scientists to inform the public and policymakers about their research and its impact on society.
These student groups are essential for supporting and promoting graduate student engagement in science policy and advocacy within their communities, and are supplemented by national organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. However, the NASEM report points out the challenges that graduate students continue to face in an uphill battle against an academic culture that lacks incentives for science advocacy and civic engagement. Research productivity and peer-reviewed publications remain the singular metrics for traditional academic success, which creates reward systems that do not adequately prepare STEM graduate students to translate their knowledge into impact in an increasingly broad range of career paths.
Introducing the National Science Policy Network
On June 18, the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) was officially launched as a national network of science policy groups led by early career scientists. Our work focuses on providing training and resources that strengthen this burgeoning science policy-community and foster a network of engaged young scientists and engineers. We will be providing microgrants to support underfunded groups, collaborating with Research!America on a nonpartisan midterm election initiative, and hosting a science policy symposium in New York City this fall.
In just one week, NSPN has attracted over 100 subscribers, representing 50 different universities nationwide within the Western, Central, Eastern, and Southern Hubs. As we continue to grow, we aim to be a grassroots advocacy network for scientific expertise, critical thinking, and data-based decision-making that supports graduate student efforts to translate science and engineering from their laboratories to government.
In the current political climate, translating and amplifying the voices of scientific knowledge are more important than ever, but most academics remain isolated in their ivory tower. Scientific leadership’s reluctance to address internal cultural problems is not new, but recent threats to restrict the role of science in democracy has catalyzed change. This vacuum of support is being filled by local groups of scientists nationwide who are taking the task into their own hands, and NSPN is here to help.
Join us at scipolnetwork.org.