October 10, 2018

The Elephant in the Lab: Five Sustainable Ways to Engage in Science Policy

Posted by Laura Lyon

Authorship of this guest post is credited to Jeremy Spool – post-doctoral researcher at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Caitlyn Hall – Ph.D. student in Environmental Engineering at Arizona State University, Jeff Brookins – Ph.D. student in Materials Science and Engineering at University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Brian Canter – Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering at Rutgers University. They attended the AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering workshop this past March.

In January 2018, Jeremy Spool attended a conference where a National Science Foundation (NSF) representative outlined, over the deafening sound of rolling eyes, the uncertainty surrounding the budget. NSF and several other basic research-sponsoring federal agencies faced enormous funding cuts in the White House’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal. While Congress didn’t follow through with proposed cuts, scientists were reminded of their vulnerability to policy decisions. Yet, many of us who make our careers in fundamental research actively avoid engaging with our representatives or the science policy world.

Jeff Brookins and Caitlyn Hall
Photo Credit: Jeff Brookins

Due to the volatile relationship between science and policy in recent years we, Jeremy, Caitlyn, Jeff, and Brian, were inspired to become more educated and engaged in science policy. We met at the 2018 AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering workshop in March, in Washington D.C. (Editor’s Note: Caitlyn was awarded a sponsorship by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) to participate in the workshop and also did a takeover of the AGU Science Policy Twitter and Instagram to showcase the inspiring and rewarding experience.)

Despite coming from different parts of the U.S. and working in different fields, we were inspired to incorporate science policy into our intended career paths in academia, industry, NGO, and government research. We serendipitously met at a happy hour and the next day, braving the snow and wind, embarked on Capitol Hill meetings together. After these shared experiences, we felt energized to continue engaging in science policy. However, once we returned to our lives as graduate students, we ran into barriers. We recognize that the barriers we encountered, including time constraints and uncertainty about how to start, are common among early career scientists. So, here’s what we did about them.


Sustainable Ways That We’ve Started Getting Involved in Science Policy

Becoming involved doesn’t mean you have to run for political office, although we wouldn’t discourage it! As early career researchers, we have a range of differences in both our desire to engage and our time available to commit. And that’s okay! Sustainable options for engaging in science policy exist for everyone.

From our perspectives across diverse institutions, we found that options to get more involved in science policy range from lacking, at best, to numerous. For those of us who feel their options are lacking, to those of us who find the possibilities overwhelming, how do we get started? Here are our suggestions:


1) Follow science policy social media accounts, or start your own. Social media, for better or worse, is here to stay. Twitter, Instagram, and other social media forums allow us to integrate ourselves into the science policy world by sharing articles and generating support. We’ve learned a lot from following active accounts or blogs, like @matthourihan and @scipolguy. Jeff and Jeremy, while finishing their degrees, read postings and linked articles while waiting for experiments to finish or meetings to start. You can also follow us on Twitter! (@jeremyspool), @caitlynahall@brookinsjeffrey, and @crianbanter)

Brian Canter and Jeremy Spool
Photo Credit: Brian Canter

2) Find other interested scientists at your institution. If you already have a science policy-focused program at your school, that’s awesome! Otherwise, start a group with other interested scientists. Brian relaunched the Science Policy and Advocacy at Rutgers (@SciPolRU) group and Caitlyn started the Arizona Science Policy Network (@AZSciPolNet). They became affiliated with the National Science Policy Network (NPSN; @scipolnetwork) because, like the Avengers and Justice League, it’s better to organize together.

3) Connect with the federal and state relations staff at your institution. Jeff and Jeremy have found that the staff in these offices are friendly, excited about their work, and invaluable connections to make in your community. Brian has scheduled a Science Policy and Advocacy at Rutgers event with their federal relations office. Government relations offices have an established network and can easily connect you with the right people.

4) Identify and apply for opportunities through your professional societies. We were surprised to learn how active our organizations were in facilitating members to engage in science advocacy. For example, Jeremy recently learned that the Society for Neuroscience has a science advocacy network and an ambassador program suited for graduate students. Caitlyn is helping organize additional science policy efforts for early career scientists at the AGU Fall Meeting. Brian writes a policy and advocacy section for the Radiation Research Society’s Scholars in Training monthly newsletter.

5) National organizations provide other avenues for getting involved in science policy. AGU is also actively involved in science policy and has accessible resources and engagement opportunities for scientists on their Science Policy pageAAAS hosts workshops and professional development opportunities throughout the year. The Engaging Scientists & Engineers in Policy (ESEP) Coalition is an established network of interdisciplinary scientists with science policy interests, offering a wealth of free materials such as an introductory webinar series about tools for science advocacy and communication. Research!America has partnered with the NSPN in empowering graduate students to engage congressional candidates about the importance of federal funding of scientific research. Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) empowers scientists to engage at a local level, where barriers to being involved can be smaller than at the national level.


We didn’t start with any science policy experience. However, by following science policy-focused social media accounts or joining an association active in science policy discussions, we began to gain insight to current events and ways to communicate effectively with members of Congress and their staff. Taking steps to engage in science policy helps ensure that the United States federal government continues to fund and appreciate the value of fundamental research. These are the steps we found worth taking.