Most of the graduate students I work with are spending the bulk of their time in lab, teaching or preparing for required departmental examinations—ultimately, preparing for future careers. During our undergraduate training and even at the graduate level, most of us are led to believe our career options are limited to academia, industry, government or alternative careers. This narrows the areas of science we are exposed to—including science policy.
The cornerstones of science policy include, but are not limited to: science advocacy, scientific communication and science-based policymaking and legislating. As most of us matriculate through our graduate school careers, we begin to notice the need for increased funding in science, a disconnection between science and the public, and a host of other issues—issues we can fix.
This is the area where a science policy group thrives. Most science policy groups are comprised of graduate students, faculty members and undergraduate students who advocate for continued support of research, science-informed policymaking and communication of science, while also exploring the ethical, legal and regulatory issues that arise from scientific progress.
Wondering what it takes to start a science policy group? Here is a checklist to get you moving toward a successful start.
Find like-minded graduate students who are passionate about science policy
Finding a cohort of two or three motivated graduate students who are interested in getting the group started is invaluable!
Doing so will allow you to get more done, get more input on how the group should be run and help define the appropriate scope of the organization—locally and nationally. Having a few key members at the start will ease your workload and reduce the pressure of starting a new organization. Give members of this core group official positions that align with their strengths and interests. This will help everyone more clearly understand what role they will be responsible for in terms of starting and maintaining the organization. These will include but not be limited to responsibilities at events, recruitment, collaborations and networking.
Equally important is to identify the “president-elect.” This individual will serve under the organization’s current president (effectively as a vice president) and will be groomed to serve as president for the following year. This sets up a succession plan from the start that will ensure the group will remain active after the core leadership team has completed their studies.
Find a faculty mentor with experience in science policy
However, most graduate students have not had much experience in any aspect of science policy—this is where an effective mentor comes into play.
One of the things about graduate school that I appreciate is getting to know faculty members better, hearing about the service they do within their field, and exploring areas they are passionate about. The American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) maintains a Public Affairs Advisory Committee (PAAC) that “monitors and responds to all matters relating to the government's role in the practice of modern science” and is comprised of the professors we interact with on a daily basis. Like the ASBMB PAAC, many scientific societies are dedicated to advocating, exploring and communicating about many of the issues that arise between the scientific community and the public or government, and the professors we interact with daily serve as members.
These individuals, and professors who have attended science-policy workshops, March for Science events and Capitol or local hill days (opportunities to speak with elected officials about policy issues), can serve as effective mentors for your organization. They have the experience and connections most faculty members do not have.
Also, having a mentor takes your group one step closer to becoming an official organization on your campus.
You’re official, with members and a mentor – now what?
Because science policy isn’t a topic covered much in STEM curriculum, there is a lot of really exciting information to be learned and shared, such as the process of acquiring research grants, how grant funds are distributed, the importance of clear communication of science, how funding decisions are made at the NSF and NIH and so much more. This information can be shared through public forums or guest speaker events.
In addition to forums and guest speaker events, the organization can participate in letter-writing campaigns to legislators, hill days to speak with representatives about important issues, host or participate in outreach events, and begin or contribute to the science section of a local or campus newspaper.
Writing for a local newspaper will allow your group to expose more students and the general public to scientific research highlighting the work of graduate students in various fields of science on your campus. Often, the science shared in the media is exaggerated or incomplete, and your articles will allow science to be communicated in a way that is both interesting and accurate.
Additionally, scheduling regular group meetings is important to keep the group active and members excited about attending and participating in upcoming events. Group meetings are a great platform to share upcoming opportunities, current events and candidly discuss issues in STEM.
Starting a group isn’t always easy: pitfalls to plan for
Be prepared that participation and attendance at your first few meeting may not meet your expectations, especially if the focus of these events is specifically science policy. A good idea to overcome this would be to make these events more general and applicable to other areas of science or topics of interest to your audience.
Depending on the location of your organization, securing guest speakers currently working in science policy may be difficult without funding. To overcome this, think about the professions in your local area and what they can bring to the table. For example, if you are located in a more rural area surrounded by farmland, farmers and agriculture experts can be invited to talk about the effects of using corn for ethanol or the global effects of tilling soil.
Bringing faculty members from diverse fields to talk with your group is also a great resource at no cost to your group!
Your checklist for starting your new science policy group may be longer or shorter depending on the rules of your institution and the needs of your organization; organizing what needs to be done can help prioritize your tasks and ease the initial workload. I hope you have found this information helpful and useful as you begin your science policy journey.