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Disentangling the World of Science Policy

By Sophia Chen

Since 2014, a group of Harvard graduate students has taken an annual trip to Washington DC for a three-day whirlwind introduction to scientists working in government. Around ten participants, who come from a variety of science disciplines, tour federal agencies such as the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the Food and Drug Administration, and speak to Ph.D. scientists about their work.

The immediate goal for the trip, organized by Harvard’s science policy graduate student group, is for the students to learn about career alternatives to academia. But their underlying motivation is to figure out their public responsibility as scientists in a changing society of new technology and global problems.

Julia Gonski first became interested in the policy side of science during her senior year in college, after she received the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to work on a particle physics experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. Gonski, a second-year Harvard physics graduate student who went on the DC trip last year, wanted to understand how the agency chose her proposal out of a pool of over 10,000 others. “Once that curtain was pulled back, it was so interesting and important, and no one was talking about it,” she says. “I wanted to look into it more.”

By delving into the funding process and then taking the trip, she learned about the hidden structure that props up the ivory tower: the work of science lobbyists, Congressional staff, and numerous other government employees who advocate for and inform policy makers about academic research. “In physics in particular, as a community, we tend to believe that we’re doing this fundamental research, and that the integrity of it alone will get us by,” she says. This attitude, in which researchers take the taxpayer’s compliance for granted, isn’t sustainable, she says. “The caveat is, the second that people stop believing it’s worthwhile, they’re not going to fund us.”

Certainly many scientists are aware of the advocacy and politics that keep the research engine oiled. But they usually develop this awareness later in their career, when they need to apply for grants. Younger scientists like Gonski have to take the initiative to learn about it.

“Maybe having a seminar on it at university is a good idea,” says Franklin Carrero-Martínez, a former biology professor who worked in the Department of State through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Fellowship. He now works as a program director at NSF. “It’s easy to complain about how dysfunctional the government is or how things aren’t working, but if you don’t educate yourself, it’s even harder to change.”

But academic culture treats policy work as a side interest, says Nicole Bedford, a Harvard biology graduate student who is organizing this year’s trip in early April. “The reward structure is not present,” she says. “The system rewards highly focused individuals, and not necessarily people with a breadth of experience. Ph.D. students are dissuaded from working in policy because it’s thought of as time taken away from doing basic research. [Policy experience] could be considered a holistic part of your training.” To shift the culture, Bedford suggests that university hiring committees could give candidates with science policy experience some credit for these pursuits instead of considering only their publication records.

For next month’s trip, in addition to learning about the policy relevant to basic research, Bedford is also interested in how basic science gets translated into useful language for policy makers, especially concerning climate change. “There are so many interest groups with so many conflicting points of view,” she says. “It’s super challenging to make incredibly complex phenomena like climate science understandable without losing any of the accuracy.”

Science is embedded in so many political issues — climate change, cybersecurity, and nuclear nonproliferation, to name a few — yet so many members of Congress are resistant to accepting scientific evidence, says Rush Holt, a Ph.D. physicist who served eight terms as a New Jersey congressman from 1999 to 2015 and is now CEO of AAAS. “None of them will say publicly they are anti-science, but the fact is most of them have grown up in school being told they are not scientists, and therefore they shouldn’t try this at home,” he says. “They become uncomfortable with science; they think they can’t do it, and they shouldn’t try. And [scientists] unfortunately make it harder by saying, in effect, ‘Oh, the public is just going to mess this up.’”

Some policy makers seem to treat science with unique distrust. “They’ll say, I’m not a scientist, I can’t do science, I won’t even think about this aspect of a particular issue,” Holt says. “Yet they wouldn’t say that about international relations. They wouldn’t say, I’m not an expert on those other countries, or I’m not going to deal with the parts that deal with public opinion because I’m not an expert pollster or whatever it is. But with science, they will say this.”

Ultimately, Holt says, this discomfort with science reflects a need across the country for better science training from an early age. “More than the facts, procedures, and instrumentation of science, we need to teach the essence of science, which is collecting and evaluating evidence to answer questions,” he says. “Then, we need to win the trust of the people so that they are willing to accept us as honest brokers of the evidence.”

But in the meantime, not all scientists need to work directly in policy to build this trust. Gonski, who serves a graduate student representative on the APS Council and has lobbied Congress on behalf of the organization, doesn’t expect “everybody to want to fly down to DC a couple times a year and put in the time that we have.” But she does think that scientists need to build better awareness about how their work is funded. That awareness “permeates your entire attitude about outreach,” she says, and provides a personal motivation for scientists to communicate more effectively with the public.

Gonski would actually prefer to stay in academia after her Ph.D. But her budding policy experience has given her a broader perspective. “It’s easy in physics to get caught up with what you’re doing, and it’s fun. It’s a great part of being a career scientist,” she says. But equally important, she says, is to take a step back to think about a scientist’s relationship with the rest of the world.

The author is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona.

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