October 4, 2018
Authorship of this guest post is credited to Robby Goldman, who is a second year PhD student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in the Department of Geology. Robby’s research focuses on how stresses within volcanic systems influence the movement of magma and location of eruptions.
How can scientists and science enthusiasts become more effective science advocates? Answering this question is the central goal of the “Advocacy Committee” that I lead for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Science Policy Group, and a goal shared by March for Science (MFS). MFS is a global community of science supporters who organize marches in support of science and evidence-based decision making, as well as a variety of other advocacy activities.
This past July, I attended the MFS Science | Government, Institutions, and Society (S|GNS) conference in Chicago with two other UIUC graduate students to engage with other scientists, educators, and community organizers. The meeting brought together over 200 scientists and science supporters from across the country—and globe—to participate in two days of panels and workshops centered around the following themes:
Making Science and the Scientific Community Diverse, Inclusive, and Accessible
Many of the panels and workshops included scientists from underrepresented backgrounds, who emphasized the importance of making science accessible and accountable to the communities it engages. Unfortunately, the needs of minorities, both within and outside of the scientific community, are often inadequately addressed. These needs include representation in medical trials, which is necessary for understanding the medical needs of all patients; representation in academia, which provides important perspectives that greatly improve scientific study; and equal access to a robust science education, which is vital for members of underrepresented communities to have equal opportunity to become part of the professional science community. Participating in the S|GNS summit helped me realize that the strength of the scientific enterprise critically depends on our community’s ability to address the needs of diverse groups of people.
Effectively Communicating Science to the Public and Elected Officials
Science also relies on sustained government funding, which is only possible if we scientists continue to engage with elected officials and the public about the benefits of our work. I learned that the best way of earning people’s respect and trust is to build relationships with them. By taking time to know people outside our scientific community, we can appreciate how the broader contexts of people’s lives shape their worldviews.
In fact, building relationships with people outside the scientific community allows us to humanize ourselves and the work we do, which is necessary since scientists are often stereotyped (sometimes accurately) as socially awkward individuals who conduct esoteric experiments in secluded laboratories. Rather than getting wrapped up in the details of our research, we need to summarize our work in ways that are easily relatable to the public. This is especially important when meeting with elected officials, whose primary concern is to support initiatives that benefit their constituencies.
Organizing Grassroots Advocacy Activities
No March for Science meeting would be complete without discussion of grassroots activities. The final day of the summit emphasized that science advocacy is a long-term commitment, requiring grassroots organizations to sustain themselves by following five criteria:
1) Defining clear goals with tangible results
2) Defining and clarifying member responsibilities
3) Collaborating with other organizations and community members
4) Documenting past activities and roles so that leadership transitions are smooth
5) Having a flexible mindset
Luckily, these same procedures are followed by my own Science Policy Group, which has existed for two years. Like all organizations, however, we have room to improve. Participating in S|GNS has equipped us with new strategies for engaging our local campus community and policymakers with science policy. In fact, shortly after the summit, we met with our city’s environmental sustainability manager, Scott Tess, to learn how our organization can contribute to local environmental policies. I was able to put many of these lessons and guidelines to use when I moderated a renewable energy town hall on September 14th at the University of Illinois.
S|GNS was a unique opportunity to discuss, learn, and grow in science advocacy, and further improve the ability of scientists to communicate with their peers, their policymakers, and the public.