Science Policy AMA: We’re Toby Smith and Erin Heath, two policy nerds with a combined 40 years of experience working with scientists, Members of Congress, federal officials and policymakers. We work to empower scientists and engineers to engage in policy. Ask us anything!

Abstract

Hi Reddit,

I’m Toby Smith, Vice President for Policy at the Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization of 60 leading U.S.research universities. I have been working in Washington for over 25 years to bring people from the scientific research and policy communities closer together and to help them better communicate with each other. I have written and spoken about science policy and funding issues, and co-authored Beyond Sputnik:U.S. Science Policy in the 21st Century.

I’m Erin Heath, Associate Director of Government Relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science. My job in a nutshell? I work to strengthen the connections between two different worlds – science and policy – and help create new ones.

We co-chair a coalition known as ESEP: Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy. Our ad-hoc group is made up of organizations that share the goal of empowering scientists to effectively engage in the policy process at all levels-local, state, and federal. As part of ESEP, we provide training for scientists interested in engaging in the science-policy interface, connect scientists with policymakers and other scientists through formal and informal channels, and promote an understanding within the research community that engaging in the policy process is an important contribution to science and society.

We will be back at 1 pm ET (10 am PT) to answer your questions, ask us anything!

My background is in physics and I would really like to help inform public policy regarding scientific issues (not just physics, although climate change would be a top priority). How can I go about doing this? I'm eager to help.

fizixguy

TS: Start by engaging with your lcoal elected officials, members of Congress, and U.S. Senators. Get to know their staff that deal with science issues and make your voice heard. There are many other ways you can in get involved even at the local level. Serve on government commissions and advisory boards, work with your local school board, write an op-ed in your local paper about scientific issues you care about, or share your knowledge about science with members of the public and policy makers that do not have scientific backgrounds. Students who don’t yet have a career path determined might want to pursue an internship or fellowship in science policy. You can find links to some of the these internship/fellowship opportunities on the ESEP webpage: www.science-engage.org.


Hi Toby and Erin! Thank you so much for doing this AMA.

My job involves working with the government (I'm in a developing country in Asia) to create or consult on policies and strategies relevant to the environment. Apart from institutional and resources constraints, a big challenge I encounter is the lack of political will or commitment by parties who are vital in policy formulation. A few of my questions are as follows:

  • What techniques have you found to be most effective in influencing policy making?
  • How do you effectively pursue an evidence-based/science-based policy making agenda with the bounded rationality of decision makers?
  • How do you manage intersectoral and interdisciplinary conflicts during engagements with multiple stakeholders?

If you can also point me to resources related to science-policy interfaces, I'd truly appreciate it.

AudiWanKenobi

EH: Thanks - these are good questions. One thing I like to remember is that every single lawmaker has some connection to science. So part of the answer is working to find that common ground. I would say the same thing - finding the common ground - about engaging with multiple stakeholders. Regarding resources: Our group started ESEP in part because there didn’t seem to be a one-stop shop for resources on engaging in science policy. We are trying to fill that void. On the ESEP website we list online toolkits, webinars, conferences, fellowships, courses, degree programs, jobs and more. What are we missing? Please let us know.


I have heard it said that there is a growing trend of anti-intellectualism is America. Is there data to support this claim? Have you noticed it in your time working with science and policy? If this trend does exist, what effects has it had on policy and are there strategies to reverse it? Thanks for your time.

TorresD

TS: I know this is a claim, but am not aware of any data to support it. From my perspective, while there are certain areas and certain scientific issues that have become increasingly politicized, there is still a great respect for the science and scientists among many policy-makers and members of the general public. In fact, according to the Harris Poll scientist still rank as being among America’s most prestigious occupations (See: http://www.theharrispoll.com/business/Doctors__Military_Officers__Firefighters__and_Scientists_Seen_as_Among_America_s_Most_Prestigious_Occupations.htm)


Neil Degrasse Tyson asked on a panel once, "Where are the scientists and engineers in Congress?" How do you deal with lawmakers making policy about subjects that they really don't understand? I've always compared it to the blind man driving the school bus.

RogueWriter

Toby Smith (TS): Neil Degrasse Tyson is right. We need more scientific expertise in Congress. It would certainly be nice for more scientists and engineers to run for public office. It is also why we need more scientists and engineers who are comfortable and effective at engaging with members of Congress and their staff members. In fact, this is one of the reasons we have formed Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy (ESEP). Finally, let me make a pitch for programs like the AAAS S&T Congressional Fellows program which places PhD scientists and engineers in Congressional offices as advisors.


Neil Degrasse Tyson asked on a panel once, "Where are the scientists and engineers in Congress?" How do you deal with lawmakers making policy about subjects that they really don't understand? I've always compared it to the blind man driving the school bus.

RogueWriter

Erin Heath (EH): It’s true, there are only a few scientists and engineers in Congress. According to a CRS report on the 114th Congress, there are currently “one physicist, one microbiologist, one chemist, and eight engineers.” I would love to see more! It is our job in the science policy community to make science as accessible as possible, to bring the science to policymakers so they can use it to make decisions.


There has been an increased interest of late in having scientists publish negative results to both avoid the skewing of data to get positive results and to save scientists from wasting effort in repeating experiments that have already been shown to fail. Are the government and the AAAS taking any steps to encourage the publication of negative results?

NerdWithoutACause

TS: I agree that there should be more efforts to publish negative results. In fact, there is just such an effort that has already been launched by Alexander Kamb from AMGEN and former Science Editor Bruce Alberts. See this link for more information: https://f1000research.com/channels/PRR


What can the average scientist do to help create better, scientifically informed policy?

123johnbender

TS: The first step is to find ways to ways to engage in policy that best suit your particular expertise, interests and strengths. While some like to engage with members of Congress, others might be more interested in writing an op-ed for their local newspaper or actually writing a longer paper on an policy issue they want to impact. To help, you might want to see if you can get involved with efforts to influence policy in which your scientific society is already engaged. The societies are often looking for individual members that are interested in getting involved in helping them to shape science policy. For example, the societies often sponsor fly-in days to Capitol Hill and need members to volunteer to participate in those. If you are at a university, you might also want to get to know your government relations representative as they can also often provide you with useful pointers.


I am a Ph.D. candidate who will be graduating this academic year. I am aware of some of the many fellowship opportunities for Ph.D.s who wish to transition to policy (AAAS S&T, PMF-STEM, etc.). I have spoken to current and former fellows at the annual AAAS meeting and these opportunities, while invaluable, are quite competitive (and justifiably so). Obtaining policy experience as a graduate student in STEM is difficult, with the many demands for our time. I have found ways to advocate for undergraduate research and education within the university I am at, but that is not policy experience, per se.

My question is, therefore, how does a student fresh out of one's program effectively leverage her experiences to be a competitive candidate for these prestigious fellowships? Thank you very much.

heyjoob

EH: The policy fellowships are well worth considering if you are interested in working in science policy. You’re already ahead of the game by reaching out to folks who have been through these programs; that’s the best way to get a sense of them. I would argue that advocating for undergraduate research and education IS valuable policy experience. It demonstrates a serious and sustained interest in policy, which is compelling. Communications and leadership experience tend to be important, as well as, of course, solid scientific credentials.


With PhDs flooding the job market and academic jobs becoming more and more difficult to get, what kinds of opportunities are there for scientists to transition into policy work post-PhD?

willissues

TS: There are many opportunities. We have posted several useful resources on this topic in the resources page on the ESEP webpage: www.science-engage.org. Examples include science policy job opportunities working in Congress, for federal research and non-research agencies, in the Administration as well as doing science policy work for think tanks, scientific societies and associations (like AAAS and AAU) and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Note that ESEP is encouraging organizations that have science policy job opportunities available to post them to twitter with the hashtag #SciPolJobs. We have the twitter feed up on the website under ESEP Jobs Board.


Why do we fund research with federal dollars (for example, cancer drugs via the NIH) and then allow the results to move into the pharma industry without a percent-of-sale or royalty coming back to the government to fund more science?

metametamind

TS: One of the major decisions that Congress made when it passed the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 was that the intellectual property developed from federally funded research should be retained by the universities/non-profits and inventors that received that research grant as opposed to the federal government. As a part of the law, royalties to universities from drugs or other federally funded inventions that come back to the universities must be plowed back into additional research. So, in some sense, the royalties from such discoveries are directly supporting more research. Of course, we also want to ensure that discoveries that based on federally funded researc actually get out into the commercial marketplace and that they are utilized. So we don’t want to impose monetary disincentives that might discourage industry from commercializing products that are based upon federally funded research discoveries.


What are your thoughts on the current way grant funding is allocated by major funding agencies? Despite ongoing changes to how funding is awarded, it still largely seems to be a system where researchers with a history of receiving substantial grants, also get the majority of new grant funding; while younger or less prestigious researchers have a hard time breaking into this system. I've seen a similar situation on a larger scale in Europe where European Commission research funds from Eastern Europe are rarely awarded back to Eastern European institutions and instead awarded to already well established groups in Western Europe.

Obviously it's easier to justify awarding funding to groups and researchers with a track record of success, but it also discourages novel academic inquiry, and severely limits the ability of new researchers to continue doing research. I would like to know if there are any effective policy strategies being investigated to remedy this type of disparity in funding allocation.

penguinzx

TS: I agree that this is an important issue and one the we need to continue to discuss and engage on with the major federal research agencies. That said, there have been efforts to try to address this issue that have been undertaken by various federal agencies. These include efforts to try to fund more young investigator awards as well as to set aside specific pots of funding to make research grant awards to high-risk, high-reward research projects. In fact, I believe that the NIH just announced several awards for high-risk, high-reward research projects.


Hi guys! I'm currently getting a masters degree in toxicology and would like to get involved with bridging the gap between science and regulatory policy. What are your suggestions for getting involved in the policy side of things? Thanks!

laurenlonz

TS: As a starting point, let me suggest that you join Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy (ESEP) as an individual member. You can do this at: http://science-engage.org/individual-membership.html. You should also consider signing up for the ESEP Trellis page where you and others will be able to participate in on-line discussions about science policy and network with others who are also interested, and some who are already engaging, in science policy. To join the ESEP Trellis group, go to: http://www.trelliscience.com/ESEP/. We are really hoping to build a robust on-line community of people interested in science policy We have also been providing webinars on how scientists and engineers can more effectively engage in policy (see: http://science-engage.org/esep-webinars.html).


I'm have degrees in physics and nuclear engineering and am a huge nuclear power proponent. Policy, along with public sentiment, are the greatest obstacle to an increase in clean nuclear energy generation. What could I do to help change this policy-wise??? In grad school pushed my department to work with other departments to offer a nuclear policy course but no luck. Was also part of delegation that went to DC for a week to attempt to convince politicians of the virtues of nuclear.

PhatterP

EH: You are doing the right things by engaging with lawmakers and leaders in your institution. Change isn’t easy, and it tends to happen incrementally. Some efforts to change policy can take years and years to bear fruit, but they are still worth doing. Keep telling your story and letting decision makers know why you are passionate about the issue. Try reaching out to new audiences - for example, writing an op-ed for the local paper, giving a talk at a community event, or attending a conference where you can collaborate with others to try to move the needle.


I'm a recent college graduate with a technical degree, but I don't want to do technical work. I've always been more interested in the law and policy side of the industry I see my peers going into. That's where my true passion is, as you say strengthening connections between the different worlds and helping everyone understand each other and see eye to eye.

How would you recommend one goes about getting their foot into the door of science and technology policy work, either through government relations, lobbying, think tank, or government work itself? I've been finding it awfully difficult to find the exact job title that fits this kind of policy work. Any advice would be appreciated. Thank you!

liggieep

EH: Network. It doesn’t have to be awkward; keep in mind that most of us benefited from the help of others early in our careers and are happy to talk and offer help when we can. Reach out to people who are doing jobs that look interesting to you and ask if they’d be willing to chat for 10 minutes. Listen to their stories of how they got into the field, and always ask who else you should meet at the end of the call. If you talk to enough people and show that you are capable and curious, you will find the right opportunities.


Hello, and thank you for conducting this AMA!

I'm a currently a graduate student working on my degree in pharmaceutical sciences (neuropharmacology), but I want to pursue a career in science policy as opposed to research. I've found I enjoy presenting research to scientists and non-scientists, and do a good job at effectively communicating concepts and findings with both groups. My career goal for the past several years has been to enter policy, and I've already applied to available fellowships.

  • How can I become involved in the process?
  • What steps so I need to take to begin connecting with policy makers?
  • How do I begin taking advantage of the training offered through ESEP?
  • What are some other steps I can/should take to become involved in the policy process?
  • How should I contact/communicate with either of you outside of Reddit? (Should I connect with you on Linked-In? I'm very serious about becoming involved in science policy)
Mister_Bloodvessel

TS: So, I would encourage you to join ESEP as an individual member. You can do that here: http://science-engage.org/individual-membership.html. This way you will learn about what ESEP is planning and various training opportunities. Also be sure to join the ESEP Trellis page where you and others will be able to participate in on-line discussions about science policy. It will be a great way for you to build an science policy network of people that can help you get involved in the process. To join the Trellis group, go here: http://www.trelliscience.com/ESEP/.


As a fellow policy nerd and H.O.R. Staffer, thank you so much for doing this AMA. What was your biggest misconception about federal government before you got involved in federal policy and/or met Members?

Alternatively, are you more or less optimistic about American politics since you began working with electeds?

JWAxeMan

EH: Thank you for joining us. Thinking back, I would say that Members of Congress and their staffs are even more time and resource crunched than many of us realize. There are so many issues to juggle, and the challenge is not a lack of information, but information overload (as you know). Our hope is to cut through the noise and provide the resources that are most helpful. To your second question, I'm still optimistic. You have to be an optimist to work in policy!


Do you believe that scientists have a role in criticizing those on the left (or worse scientists who do that), who cite science as justification of a certain preferred policy that is ideologically convenient for them? For example, anti-capitalists, people who like big goverment and taxes and regulations (I don't imply that either taxes or goverment programs are wrong, but the extend is debatable), people praising communism, bashing anyone who isn't left wing enough, etc. Or bashing people without left views on identity issues who are moderates.

Is it really scientifically proper for scientists comment often about issues outside their expertise such as economics (when they aren't an expert on economics or an economist) or policy, while they have not sufficient knowledge of either? You can see this in all scientific related subreddits, including this one, and it is quite apparent with scientists communicating about policy outside of reddit as well. And as a cherry on top, academic subreddits tend to have shoddy far left subreddits called bad+academic field that brigade them and negatively influence them. The behavior seen in the science subreddits, in the most popular forum of the internet, harms the credibility of scientists, and also dissuades people of moderate views, or those who want less politicizing and views to be pushed on them, on pursuing the field.

Personally, I consider the scientific community as somewhat culpable for the misunderstandings of science in policy, and by shoddy science in some of the social sciences, by allowing the field to be too politicized and not behaving in a sufficiently professional and impartial manner. And by either agreeing with, or allowing others to cite science as a reason for certain policies when it is more complicated.

This is also problematic, because people are tribal. If you as scientists associate science with a political faction, or don't do enough to dissociate, you are not only worsening its quality, but you harm science's popularity and credibility.

Now, I find the politicians who lie about the science (on the left or on the right), as even more culpable.

So, obviously you deal with how to get the public and politicians to listen to scientists, but another very important question is how do you get scientists to not behave like politicians?

JacksonHarrisson

TS: My view on this is that like every U.S. citizen, scientists have a right to have and voice their opinions. They just need to be careful, however, not to suggest that their opinions represent scientific fact. While science can help to inform policy, science alone is not "policy prescriptive." That said, I think it is reasonable that scientists can use their knowledge as the basis to support and advocate for certain policy positions and solutions.


How do I get to do the same work that you guys do ?

sid1188

TS: The most valuable suggestion I can give you is to reach out to people that are already in the career that you would like to have. In Washington DC, I have found that people already employed in policy positions are always happy to talk to people that are seeking policy careers. Most all of us have done the job search thing so we are happy to help others. So, start building your science policy network ASAP! If you want to get a job in DC, remember that it is not necessarily "who you know" that will help you to get a job, but rather "who you get to know!" So, don't be shy in asking people for career advice.


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