17 June 2020

An early career perspective on bridging the science policy divide

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Elizabeth D. Hetherington

Hetherington on a visit to Congresswoman Diane Feinstein’s office. Credit: Elizabeth Hetherington

As more scientists with PhDs are interested in applied research and pursue non-traditional (i.e., non-tenure track) career pathways, there is growing interest in working at the science-policy interface. Scientific expertise is often valuable for informing and guiding legislative actions and policy decisions. However, scientists typically receive little training on the inner workings of government, public policy, or communicating scientific findings to policymaker audiences, which contributes to the lack of collaboration between scientists and policymakers. In my experience, while I was broadly interested in science policy during graduate school, opportunities to engage in policy efforts were infrequent. My department, like many others at academic institutions, had few faculty members who engaged in policy efforts and/or were supportive of students who expressed interest in the science-policy interface.  

Through the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Voices for Science (VfS) Program and my interaction with other early career researchers, it became clear that there is an interest in science policy, but many scientists don’t know where to begin. These realizations motivated my efforts to collaborate with a VfS colleague to create a ‘ten-step guide’ for scientists who want to participate in science policy, with a focus on state and federal policy in the United States. The ten-step guide was informed by research, our personal experiences in congressional meetings on Capitol Hill with VfS and in our home districts and talking to people who work at the science-policy interface.

The ten-step guide aims to provide scientists with meaningful ways to engage in policy efforts. Before scientists engage in policy efforts, they first need to understand how science is funded. As such, our guide first includes ‘preparatory’ steps, with a primer to government structure and tailoring science communication for a policymaker audience.  We then provide action-oriented steps that focus on arranging and successfully navigating meetings with government officials. These steps also include how to tailor communication efforts to a policy-maker audience (e.g., craft an effective one-pager). Finally, we suggest structural steps in academia that would provide resources and support for students, researchers, and faculty who are interested in policy. These steps include publishing in open access journals, writing plain language summaries for publications, attending policy-related conferences, and inviting professionals who work at the science-policy interface to your institution for seminars.

Our goals for the guide were to illustrate different pathways for engagement in science policy and provide research with tangible policy actions that they can take. More broadly, we hope to activate further conversations on best practices for science policy engagement, particularly for researchers who are potentially interested in pursuing policy-related careers.

-Elizabeth D. Hetherington is a postdoc at the Integrative Oceanography Division, Scripps Institution of Oceanography.