Science is one of the best available tools for solving societal challenges—whether they are the 17 agenda items in the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals or finding vaccines for infections such as Zika. To help ensure success, early career academic investigators can play an important role in bridging the gap between science and policy.

We attended the 12th Anniversary of the World Science Forum (WSF) in early November in Jordan, along with the largest-ever group of early career investigators. Scientists, engineers, and technologists attending the meeting were expected to engage with decision makers to shape policy decisions for the benefit of science and society. But learning to be a science diplomat does not just automatically come with the practice of science. Therefore, we have some suggestions for our colleagues looking to communicate with policymakers.

Building Capacity for Science Diplomacy

How do we build capacity for diplomacy among early career investigators? The recent merger of the International Council of Science and the International Social Science council to form the International Science Council that includes all sciences is a step in the right direction. With all sciences represented, we are in a better position to ensure gender/ racial/and cultural equity across the pipeline from student to leadership. Through the commitment of organizations such as INGSA and AAAS/TWAS pebbles are dropping into a lake to start ripples extending the reach of science diplomats.

For example, in the AAAS/TWAS course in Trieste, early career investigators spend a week learning about the intricacies of science diplomacy, who the players are, and what they can do in their career development to engage with various stakeholders. Similarly, INGSA Africa training workshops have focused on teaching early career scientists about the science policy landscape in Africa, and about the complexities of decision-making using role-play. But more can and should be done.

Building capacity requires an understanding of the evolving needs, barriers and facilitators faced by early career investigators and their ability to bridge science and policy. A recent study of ASEAN early career investigators conducted by the Global Young Academy tried to identify these pressure points. A key barrier, lack of leadership skills training, is being addressed by Science Leadership Programs, which have run in Africa and ASEAN regions.

While these examples speak broadly to the need to build capacity in early career investigators, it is worth noting that these skills are not being learnt from scratch, In fact, there are skills inherent to doing science that are transferrable to science diplomacy. We note here five such transferable skills that early career investigators already cultivate when building their research groups and can apply to attending policy meetings, or to trying to determine if a career in policy is something they want to pursue:

Science Communication. Contrary to popular belief, early career investigators spend a great deal of time during their training and in their career development trying to communicate with others. They learn to share knowledge, disseminate results and build consensus at weekly laboratory meeting, at conferences, or via written grant proposals, or manuscripts. But their communication is generally jargon heavy as it’s to other specialists in their field. They need to hone skills by learning high-level pitches that communicate big ideas succinctly and without jargon.

These science communication skills are relevant when speaking directly to policymakers; or to speaking to broader society to raise awareness of the importance of science, and to serve as advocates for science to policymakers. For example, at the WSF in Jordan, two Cyprus scientists, Simge Davulcu and Myrtani Pieri, described how research efforts open dialogue between scientists in North and South Cyprus. They presented the Mediterranean Science Festival held in Cyprus in April 2017, and described planned bi-communal scientific activities including a joint Cafe Scientifique and workshops for children. In this case, scientific communication is leading to scientific collaboration and the great hope is also to community and policy connections.

Resilience. Early career investigators gain a lot of resilience by doing experiments, where they try and fail iteratively until it works. At WSF, MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) scientist Ola Elzein described how her day-to-day experiences as a biologist doing fundamental basic science and learning to fail helped her overcome the challenges of pursuing a career in science in the region. With years of experience in trying and trying again, young investigators can help brainstorm ideas for advancing work on societal challenges such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

Leveraging Resources. In an era of scarce and shrinking resources for science, an important skill to learn is how to make the most efficient use of existing research resources. These skills, learned for survival in a fiercely competitive scientific environment, can also be leveraged for science diplomacy. For example, an early career investigator conducting research with implications for disaster risk reduction needs to be cognizant of relevant global frameworks for disaster-risk reductions such as the Sendai framework, the first major agreement of the post-2015 development agenda endorsed by the UN General Assembly, which recognises the role of the State in reducing disaster risk.
At WSF, the Director of the MENA CRDF (Civilian Research Defense Fund) Global office, Abier Amarin, outlined how scientists in the region can level the limited funds available to them to access equipment and build collaborations on a global scale. Specifically, she identified networks MENA scientists can connect to and programs CRDF Global offer to this group of scientists.

Building Partnerships. Scientists must work across disciplines and form partnerships with policymakers and civil society groups. They must develop skills such as active listening, negotiation, empathy and patience. At the start of WSF, in a workshop for early career investigators, on the surface they discussed how to prevent weaponization of emerging technologies; on a deeper level, the exercise gave them experience in learning cultural dexterity and how to recognize and respect cultural norms. In one exercise the workshop participants stood on a line and in response to each question moved to the left or right of center. Example questions were “I’m ok being touched,” “I need personal space,” and “I look someone in the eye when speaking.”

Depending on their answer a pattern became evident of the differences between Western and MENA cultures. Having this knowledge a priori can help to avoid unintended missteps. In another exercise, participants mapped the cultures they identify with, positive attributes of that culture, what qualities they thought were important for cross-cultural partnerships, and reflected on what qualities/skills they felt were lacking in their personal toolbox and what they would like to build on. Partnerships, whether scientific or diplomatic, can’t succeed without respect for each other’s differences.

Creating Opportunities. Developing skills for a career that must extend across disciplines and other societal groups is difficult. But early career investigators have an eerie proclivity for creating opportunities, and they can learn from them. The skill of having to go “where the science is” to find the right lab, the right advisor, the right project can beneficially transfer to policy work. Learning how to pivot to find a deal or negotiate around a sensitive topic is how the best policymakers and diplomats thrive.

At WSF, this was discussed via the creation of a Jobs of the Future contest. JOF is a grassroots effort for scientists to identify both technical and soft skills they have mastered and how they can be translated into a career opportunity. For example, as automation is expected to take over more and more technical jobs, coding becomes a skill in heavy demand. If you are an early career investigator with coding skills you are an asset to policy makers trying to decipher how and when automation should be employed. As this is largely not part of routine science training, scientists are identifying these gaps in their training and the skills they will require in the workforce, and exploring opportunities to build those skills to create new employment opportunities.

To be sure, early career investigators need more than these five skills to contribute to policy advances. But these five are the first critical to building a skills ecosystem that can be leveraged down the line for career opportunities at the intersection of STEM and policy making.