Tips for Grads: How to engage in science policy

By Seth Anderson, PhD candidate in Chemical & Biological Engineering

I think many of us in the sciences have what I lovingly call “tunnel vision.” We have aspirations and interests outside of STEM, yet we spend most of our time working on our degrees or recovering from the hard work we do. Further, I would hazard a guess that many of us are also in tune with what we support politically, societally, and morally. So, I am here to cover some tips I learned at the Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop on how to break out of the “tunnel vision” and dive into the world of science policy.

Funny enough, getting into science policy starts with one thing only: doing good science! You need some sort of credibility for people in the policy world to take you seriously, and the best way to do that is take your job as a scientist seriously. Go out there, get some publications, and conduct some cool science that other people can look at and say, “Hey, I trust that person knows what they are talking about.”

Next is arguably the hardest aspect of breaking into the policy realm, which is developing strong written and oral communication skills for both academic and general audiences. By general, I simply mean people who do not study your specific subject matter area for a living, which could include other academics and crucially, people with limited or no scientific background. You want to be able to communicate complex topics with everyone from THE expert in your field to the general public to politicians who are making the decisions. The latter two are highly undervalued in STEM considering the science we do affects the public, and politicians often misunderstand why science is important. So, be specific, meticulous, and cautious in your writing, and present at conferences when possible. Heck, you could write in blogs, explain your work to your parents, or share your science on social media. All of these will make you a stronger communicator.

Simply put, if you want to break into the science policy realm, you must show an interest in it. One way to do this is to start writing for general audiences as we discussed in the last paragraph. Additionally, you should join organizations that are already involved in science policy, as they will have information about opportunities that will help you contribute to your causes and voice your opinions. If you are in academia, consider going to the National Science Policy Network and finding your local chapter. If you are not in academia or a scientist, you can go to Citizen Science to participate in research or talk to your community about why science policy is important. Surrounding yourself with people who care about science policy will improve your prospects.

To round this all out, you want to focus on your relationships. We care about science policy because we want to improve people’s lives, which means you should focus on your relationships with the people your science impacts most. Further, strengthen your relationships with mentors, coworkers, and local advocates that you meet on your journey. Your network should be strong and your relationships meaningful as you will learn much more and enhance your ability to contribute to science policy. Be genuine and be kind, you can’t go wrong with these.

If you are interested in learning more, check out the companion piece in an upcoming Tips for Grads on how to do one-on-ones with politicians written by Sam Helle, or check out a list of activities curated by Neydis Moreno. Additionally, check out the Gebbie Lab ISEE Blog for breakdowns of science, tips for students, and engineering culture.

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.