July 3, 2013

AGU Science Policy Conference as a Call to Action for Research Community

Posted by Sam Brockway


For the American Geophysical Union, fitting a conference on “science policy” into a two-day span is no small feat. Compare that to the Fall Meeting in December where just the “science” alone stretches out across an entire week, with over 800 science-focused sessions already registered for the 2013 meeting (note: I am leaving out Education, Public Affairs and Union sessions in this count). Of course, the science is historically where AGU’s membership thrives. However, it is clear that the leadership at AGU has identified the multifaceted relationship between science and policy to be of particular importance, and given the lively atmosphere at the 2013 Science Policy Conference, members are responding.

By calling it a science policy conference, AGU left the door open to two main discussions: (1) the decisions, including budgetary, regarding Federal and Federally-funded scientific research, and (2) the application of scientific results to policymaking. The plenary sessions focused squarely on the former. Tuesday’s session aimed directly at the push-and-pull between funding agencies and Congress.  Wednesday’s session took a communications-oriented view, with discussion on various media which can deliver the impact of science to a wider audience.

Photos By Eddie Arrossiwww.eaphoto.com

NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett (left) and Former Rep. Bart Gordon (right) discuss the past, present and future political climate for science funding. Image by: Eddie Arrossi

The breakout sessions offered the depth of information to bring scientific understanding into the policy and regulatory conversation. In the Energy sessions, presenters discussed tradeoffs between water and energy, the variety of onshore energy sources (oil/gas, nuclear, renewables) and their market forces, and developments in offshore renewable energy.  The panelists all made the case that the understanding gained through their research was not knowledge for its own sake, but could serve a public good by informing the policy decisions about the energy sector.

Among the early-career participants I met at the conference, nearly all had spent time working in Washington, D.C. in some capacity. Many had served, or were currently serving, in the various legislative or executive fellowships offered by scientific societies. Some had worked in the private sector or with nonprofits, but all were familiar with the peculiar ecosystem of Washington and understood the need to bring scientific results, concisely stated, to Federal-level decision-makers. The parallels between interdisciplinary scientific training are tangible—just as the research community identified a need for scientists who are comfortable in multiple disciplines, AGU is making efforts to support scientists interested in the policymaking and regulatory domains.

We as a scientific community generally envision our science as something above the political fray, and with good reason. Science as a knowledge-producing tool is best applied outside the bias of a particular time and place. However, science remains an act conducted by individuals, possessed of professional and personal persuasions which are crucial to informed policymaking. A point made during the Monday Communications Workshop was “if you aren’t communicating the message yourself, someone else is communicating it poorly.” The sessions for this meeting represent key areas where the research community can and should come forward to make the message clear. We can ensure that the policy and regulatory environment reflect the best understanding of the Earth system, but only if we familiarize ourselves with and participate in the policy process directly.

-Andrew Neal, Research Associate. Penn State University