Lessons in Mixing Science and Policy

Christopher Spitzer

Readers of this newsletter will not be surprised to learn that there is a big world outside of academia, and that science plays a key role in addressing society’s challenges in areas that range from climate change to data privacy. At the same time, effective approaches to these challenges demand political feasibility in addition to technical soundness. A good solution isn’t worth much if no one agrees to implement it.

I became interested in the intersection of science and policy when I was a graduate student, at a time when there appeared to be a growing gap between the two. The question of implementation loomed large in my mind. I often heard discussion of the need for science to “inform” policy, but could find scant information on how this could actually be achieved in a meaningful way that improves outcomes from the political process. Moreover, as a physicist whose background was in particle theory, it wasn’t clear what I would be able to contribute. My knowledge of cosmology and hypothesized extensions of the standard model did not appear immediately applicable to, say, the problems of encouraging energy efficiency in the United States or building a stable society in Afghanistan.

Yet, within a few years of receiving my Ph.D., I found myself staffing a US senator during Energy Committee hearings, and, shortly afterward, riding in the back of an armored SUV traveling through the streets of Kabul.

A pair of remarkable programs enabled this transformation. The 2010-2011 AIP Congressional Science Fellowship (APS has a closely related program) provided my first glimpse behind the scenes of the political arena. In that position I worked with the legislative team in Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s personal office, covering science, energy, and the environment. From there I moved to a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship at the State Department from 2011–2013. I was on the Afghanistan desk (which means office, in State’s lingo), covering economic development with a focus on energy, education, science, the environment, and health. Both fellowship programs offer a path for scientists to go beyond simply learning from afar how the federal government functions. They provide a chance to become part of the government, while engaging some of the toughest problems we face. It’s science policy in practice, not theory.

These fellowships acted as a boot camp in science policy that not only answered my question about implementation and helped me develop skill in translating between science and society, but also offered a number of lessons, not to mention a few surprises, about what it’s like to work in the world of policy and politics. Here are a few that stood out:

Science Matters 

Despite the frequent rancor visible on television, I found that science and rigorous analysis play a central role in the conduct of government. While I was in the Congressional office, during discussion with staff on both sides of the aisle, science remained one of the few “honest brokers” of information. While this didn’t always translate to speeches on the Senate floor, I found it possible to quietly advance scientifically sound policy prescriptions.

Abilities Transfer 

As I anticipated, at no point in my fellowships did I make use of my knowledge of the Higgs boson. What I did not expect is that the core skills and abilities I had developed as a physicist—abilities I previously took for granted—were highly valued by the offices in which I worked. These included rapidly understanding complex information, assimilating disparate data, conceiving of novel solutions, and offering good judgment. While these are a scientist’s bread and butter, most policy staff feel uncomfortable applying them in technical areas, and are happy to have someone on their side who is willing to grapple with them. Outside of the technical agencies, many scientists who work in policy must be generalists, and I wasn’t an expert in the fields included in my portfolios. However, I found my training was sufficient to understand enough to develop appropriate policy prescriptions. In short, scientists have a lot to offer in government despite not having the educational background or experiences of many who serve as legislative or executive staff.

Relationships Dominate 

Public policy is built on relationships rather than ideas. Politicians and senior decision makers know that they lack the background to understand all aspects of the issues for which they’re responsible. However, they do have skill in judging character. A recommendation from someone they trust is worth much more than any well-written whitepaper or policy brief. Developing trust, say between a scientist and a Congressional office, can take years of frequent contact. While occasional events like Congressional Visit Days may provide a quick boost in awareness among policy staff, it is the continuous long-term involvement that really helps push policy forward.

Narrative is Key 

Politicians and other policy makers have specific constituencies to which they must be responsive. There are a lot of good policy ideas, but the ones that take root are those in which the decision makers understand why their constituents would benefit. A clear, compelling narrative is the way to achieve this—that is, a good story that links the policy to a beneficial outcome. Moreover, the most influential communicators are those who understand how a Congressional office or federal agency works, and deliver the narrative in a form that fits into the workflow. A succinct summary and specific recommendations are much more useful than a long report or generalizations.

Patience Pays Off 

Real shifts in policy are not usually achieved overnight. During my time in Congress, I worked on an energy efficiency bill that was introduced in 2011, and was built on a lot of good ideas that had been previously discussed in the Senate. That bill was not passed that year or the next. Instead, a series of staffers, including subsequent Congressional Fellows, repeatedly refined and re-introduced the bill until finally, in 2015, it was passed and signed into law. This process of long-term results guided by many hands is typical.

While every physicist has the underlying ability to become effective in influencing policy, there is a shortage of those who actively find ways to engage. Despite the potential for benefit to the field, it’s not something that’s typically encouraged by graduate school or the tenure system. For those who have interest and are willing to step out of the comfort zone of research, becoming involved in policy has enormous benefits both for the individual and to the field.

Christopher Spitzer
UC Research Initiatives
University of California, Office of the President

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.