January 5, 2024

Reflections from the AAAS’ Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering Workshop, 2023

Posted by Caitlin Bergstrom

Madeline Nyblade, a PhD Candidate at University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, was sponsored by AGU in 2023  to attend the AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering Workshop with Washington DC. 

AGU is proud to sponsor one student member to participate in the AAAS CASE Workshop again in 2024. We are particularly seeking students with strong interest but limited experience and knowledge of science policy and advocacy, and who demonstrate strong communication and leadership skills. To be eligible for AGU sponsorship, students must be AGU student members, and be enrolled full-time in an undergraduate (upper-class) or graduate degree program (including double majors) in an AGU science. Applicants will need to be able to attend the workshop in Washington, D.C. from 14-17 April, 2024. AGU will cover all workshop and travel costs. Application deadline is 11:59pm Pacific Time on Thursday, 1 February 2024.


I had the privilege of attending the AAAS’s workshop in Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering thanks to funding from the American Geophysical Union. At this workshop, I learned about the history of science policy, how science is funded, and the many science-policy positions throughout the federal government. I was excited to attend this workshop to better understand the relationship between science and policy, especially regarding science and policy for environmental justice.


One of the major lessons I took away from this workshop was the importance of relationship building for credibility and trust. As scientists, we can build long-term relationships with lawmakers that can lead to influence on policy over time. This sparked my interest because my traditional scientific training generally prioritized my technical abilities over interpersonal skills. However, the scientific community needs people who prioritize relationships in science policy. I can see how my relational skills, alongside my technical expertise, would support me in science policy work.


I learned more about how specific offices and positions within the federal government influence and engage in science policy. We had the opportunity to hear from former staff within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, former and current congressional staff, and leadership within several scientific agencies.


I also learned about the historical and present connections between science and policy. As scientists, we are trained to consider our work as objective and separate from politics. However, it is clear science funding has always had political motivations and these motivations have shaped research within the United States. Some examples of political priorities influencing science funding include the military and economic motivations behind federally funding basic science research and recently technologic innovation.


Because of this history, I have been critically thinking about the scientific pursuit of objectivity. A scientist following the positivist scientific method may achieve objectivity within the mainstream scientific worldview, but their research questions are influenced by funding and therefore political priorities. This history and analysis show a clear political dimension of science, yet many speakers at this workshop urged against the ‘politicization of science’ and advocated for science to be seen only as an objective source of knowledge. To me, the truth lies somewhere in the middle: mainstream science holds powerful tools to discern knowledge from complex sources of information, yet the decision of what questions get researched is a political, subjective choice. If we fail to interrogate the politics of science, specifically the choice of what and who gets funded, then we fail to critically reflect on the unequal benefits and harms of science on society and miss opportunities to work towards justice.


I was able to discuss these critical reflections of science with a staffer in Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s office during my Hill-visits at the end of the workshop. For my graduate research, I to study Manoomin / Psin (Wild Rice in Ojibwe and Dakota) with several tribal nations and inter-tribal organizations. With Betty McCollum’s staff, I shared and discussed the numerous and continued ways mainstream (Western) science has been leveraged to support the goals of the federal or state governments at the expense of tribal nations, often disrespecting their right to sovereignty and self-determination. Specifically, I talked about the importance of the USGS respecting tribal sovereignty in their current geologic mapping projects.


Overall, I learned a tremendous amount from this workshop, and I plan to stay engaged in science policy throughout my career.