Barriers Scientists Face Engaging with Policy

Guest Post By Clara Tibbetts, 2020-2021 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Chemistry

Do you see a space for students and scientists in local government?

This is a question that I have posed to policymakers many times as the president of CSU Science in Action, a science communication and policy group for grad students and post docs at CSU.

The resounding answer: duh.

Often followed by a litany of powerful examples of policy impacted by a few engaged citizens and or opportunities to dive in right then and there.

Join a board. Attend a City Council meeting. Testify to state legislators. Write a memo or op-ed. On and on the list goes.

So why aren’t more students and scientists actively engaged in conversations with local government officials and employees? It is evident many engineers and scientists are deeply interested in making a difference in their communities but there are barriers to getting the ball rolling. Here I want to address these, from my personal experience being a chemistry PhD student yearning to make an impact beyond my lab.

For context, in my day-to-day work I am a physical chemist. I go to my lab, troubleshoot expensive lasers and think about batteries and fundamental quantum mechanics. I enjoy it; however, I hit a point where research was not enough for me.

I draw energy from interacting with others, communicating about science, advocating for institutional change, and organizing folks around me. And I know I want a career outside of academia – specifically I am drawn in by science advocacy and policy. Yet, finding professional development activities that mesh with my goals and fit within in graduate school constraints has not been a seamless process.

As a chemist I just cannot resist the urge to discuss this process with a chemistry analogy… It is apt to say there has been a high activation barrier, or in other words, some hurdles, while pursuing my end goal.

So now I want to walk you through some of these barriers and potential avenues to address them.

Some Current Barriers:
  1. Uncertainty on How to Approach Local Policy Engagement
  2. Knowing how to effectively engage with any level of policy is not always clear cut. Policies themselves are often long and riddled with jargon. In addition, within government bodies, even relatively small bodies like universities or city governments, it can be challenging to find the key people to talk to about your ideas.

    1. Lack of Confidence to Engage
    2. Even when you’ve managed to gather enough base knowledge about local governance and policymaking, a feeling that your ideas and know how are not adequate, otherwise referred to as imposter syndrome can creep up. Personally, I have experienced the rampant nature of imposter syndrome in the scientific and academic community. However, this feeling was only amplified as I have started to dip my toes into the new world of science policy. This lack of confidence can lead to hesitancy, and a desire for unattainable perfection before engaging, resulting in a lack of action.

    3. Local Engagement Opportunities Get Overlooked
    4. Often the involvement of scientists in policy is discussed from a federal or international perspective, which is an important space for scientific involvement. However, we are often missing the conversation about what we can do in our most immediate communities. Action locally can sometimes be easier to drive with grassroots tactics, and consequently provides a great starting place for scientists looking to make a difference.

  3. Culture of Separation Between Academics and Civic Engagement
  4. Frequently those in STEM fields are not given any direct education on ways to effectively engage outside of an academic setting, they are also often actively taught that work beyond a lab or the academy is of lesser value. Consequently, advocacy work is neither valued nor incentivized. Thus, researchers trying to civically engage face an incredibly difficult balancing act. This in turn leaves folks unable to give their best in research or advocacy.

Potential Solutions to Each Barrier:
  1. Take Advantage of Existing Organizations and Avenues to Engage
  2. There are a multitude of groups and organizations who help scientists engage with policymakers. This is fantastic for a couple reasons. One, we do not need to reinvent the wheel in the realm of local engagement efforts. Over and over, I see independent groups pop up to tackle similar issues. Coordinating these efforts rather than starting from scratch can save time and increase their social impact.

    Two, finding a space in an existing organization and having access to community resources can help combat feelings of imposter syndrome. For me, joining CSU Science in Action and learning from like-minded peers was key to jump starting my foray into science policy.

    Solutions to greater policy engagement are out there. Here are some* current resources to get you started:

    Nationwide Policy Resources:
    1. Check out Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL), a national organization fully dedicated to increasing local civic engagement of folks with STEM backgrounds. They have published an entire playbook on effective steps for getting involved locally.
    2. Join the National Science Policy Network (NSPN). With hubs across the country, it strives to support early career scientists in policy engagement through community-building and shared resources. Check out one of their education modules on state, local, and tribal governments.
    3. Take action through the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a national non-profit founded over 50 years ago with the mission to use rigorous science to solve our planet’s most pressing problems.
    Colorado, Larimer County, Fort Collins, and CSU specific resources:
    1. Learn more about policy at the Colorado State level by participating in the Colorado Science & Engineering Policy Fellowship. This is a bipartisan lead program with the mission of preparing students with STEM backgrounds for the increasing need for public policymakers to call on experts and technical problem solvers for consultation, advice, and collaboration
    2. Check out leadership roles on one of 36 different boards available to join in Larimer County. Or just start by attending a meeting for a board such as the Environmental and Science Advisory Board (ESAB).
    3. Attend and participate a City Council meeting, or fill out surveys seeking community feedback on different proposals and action items in the City of Fort Collins Government.
    4. If you are a student or postdoc at CSU and are curious about becoming more engaged in local and institutional policymaking join our science policy and communication group: CSU Science in Action.
  3. Increasing the Value Placed on Scientist Involvement in the Policy
  4. We must advocate for university policy changes that codify the importance of acknowledging and compensating academic scientists for their work beyond their research and beyond their immediate institution. Communities thrive when all members can participate in meeting challenges together. Yet often those who are involved in local politics are those with time and means. Therefore, we must consider methods to give scientists time and means to be at the table. It is logical to advocate for institutional investment, perhaps in the form of graduate assistantships, formal recognition for faculty, or opportunities for grants.

In addition, since an institutional change will not happen overnight so here are some ideas on combating time constraints:

  • Focus – find a small, specific project you are passionate about and focus on what could be done right now. You do not have to change the everything in one fell swoop.
  • Coordinate – locating a group of dedicated individuals can help take the pressure off just your shoulders.
Why it is worth it?

It is worth it because of what can get done. There are a myriad of examples of scientists getting involved to help make an impact in their own local communities or beyond. In just the last three months some of the stories shared by those working with ESAL have been nothing short of inspiring.

And perhaps on a smaller scale, but nonetheless meaningful, this year at CSU, the Science in Action community has done great work. Amid balancing the ongoing stress of a pandemic and graduate school the members of our group have:

  • Hosted and organized CSU Speaks – A public event with “Ted-talk” like presentations from CSU faculty and students, reaching over 50 individuals in the Fort Collins community
  • Opened dialogues with local government employees including: Fort Collins Chief Sustainability Officer, Jacqueline Kozak Thiel, Housing Director, Lindsay Ex, County Commissioner Kefalas, and Climate Policy Leader with the State of Colorado, Samantha Lichtin.
  • Helped coordinate writers for a “Gold Paper” project publishing short informational works about CSU research

As scientists we have a breadth of skills, knowledge, and lived experiences that can be valuable assets to those working in the policy space. We just need to work on lowering that activation barrier and taking a leap into civic engagement.

*Note: This is by no means close to an exhaustive list of the fantastic organizations and folks doing the work of engaging scientists in policy work, just a small collection to act as a starting place

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