A majority of Americans report that the 2016 election has increased their interest in politics. There are also signs that scientists are also becoming more politically engaged. But how much good is coming out of this increased interest? Some have bemoaned that scientists aren’t getting involved in policy debates where they could have an impact on society. Why might this be? Perhaps it is unclear to many scientists what avenues exist for them to be meaningfully involved in policy.
In the last year or two, many campus groups have been formed, mostly by graduate students, to channel this political energy. Some of these groups host talks and panels for fellow scientists, conduct public outreach or compile “science scorecards” to track legislators’ voting records.
I propose a new model for a group of scientists at any level to be politically engaged: partner with nonprofit organizations and political campaigns to provide something they need. Think of it as pro bono scientific consulting.
As an example of how this model can work, I offer an organization that I started in 2016, the Scientist Action and Advocacy Network (ScAAN). I formed ScAAN as a way to harness the political energy that was growing in NYU’s psychology and neuroscience departments. We started by sending out e-mails to various social change organizations that we thought could use assistance from psychology and neuroscience researchers. Our efforts resulted in several productive collaborations, the first with Raise the Age New York, a group working to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York to 18. (Until last year, New York and North Carolina were the only two states where 16-year-olds were automatically tried as adults).
We compiled the relevant scientific literature into a five-page document that they could give to lawmakers. They used the brief as part of their ultimately successful campaign; this month marks one year since the governor signed a bill to raise the age of criminal responsibility. We are following up on this work by collaborating with a group of public defenders to produce a summary of developmental science findings that juvenile criminal defenders can use in court. We are also partnering with a campaign to end isolated confinement in New York State and with a New York City environmental justice group.
Scientists can do work that nonprofit organizations sometimes don’t have the capacity for. Some of our partners have told us that they do not have the expertise or the time to read scientific papers, and have found our scientific support valuable. They have also told us that partnering with us makes their cases stronger in the eyes of the public and lawmakers; scientists rank highly among the groups most trusted by Americans to act in the public interest.
Although every NSF grant is made partly on the basis of the work’s “potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes,” scientific research does not always find its way to the nonprofits who can transform knowledge into outcomes. We have found that nonprofits are sometimes not aware of basic scientific findings that are pertinent to the cases they are trying to make. There is a great need—and an important opportunity—for scientists to act as the connectors between research findings and social change organizations.
The best way to fill that need is by organizing scientists locally; I encourage you to try it out. You might be surprised at how much time people in your department are willing to give. I was. Our membership has found it energizing to delve deep into areas that are outside of their primary research interests; this helps to keep involvement high, as well as to attract new members.
You can start by holding regular meetings in your department to identify your group’s interests. By organizing locally, you can take advantage of the pre-existing social structures in your department. Busy people are more likely to attend meetings if they know the other people involved and see them around at talks and journal clubs. It helps that no one will have to travel far to attend meetings; getting members to travel can be an obstacle for many volunteer activist groups.
One of our members wrote that, “although the fruits of my research are far removed from real-world concerns, I feel like I am materially contributing to the world by working on ScAAN projects. I’m now considering ways that I can use my scientific training to fight for social justice after I graduate.” As scientists, we have more power than we think we do. We just have to find a way to harness it.