Leaders of the scientific community have criticized the myopic actions of this administration to stifle the voice and input of scientific knowledge. For example, President Trump has yet to nominate a scientific advisor. His administration’s budgets have proposed slashing support for scientific research, although Congress has provided increases for many key science agencies such as NIH and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
Yet while our community is alarmed by the current state of affairs, we must also recognize a critical long-term need: to encourage and train more scientists to engage in policy, civil engagement, and advocacy. As a community, we may give lip service to the importance of this in public, but we rarely provide any meaningful incentives for scientists to become “civic scientists.” When scientists meaningfully engage the public and policy-makers, we all win. We must find a way to inspire the next generation to step forward and contribute scientific rigor to policy-making and the public debate.
The frequent reluctance of scientific leaders to address internal cultural problems is not new, but now is the time for new approaches. One emerging solution you may not have heard of: local groups of early-career scientists (especially PhD students and post-doctoral researchers) working together to demonstrate the value of science to inform policy that is relevant to their communities. These groups are engaging their peers to raise awareness on topics such as the policy considerations in which science plays a role (nowadays, almost everything) and advocacy for policy matters within their community.
We’ve collected some data on this emerging movement. From a nationwide survey that we sent out earlier this year to early-career science policy groups on university campuses, of the 22 groups surveyed, 45 percent have started just in the past year and a half. Composed primarily of graduate students, 60 percent operate on annual budgets of $1,200 or less. Many of these groups use their limited funds to bring in speakers and host discussion groups, but they are interested in expanding their efforts to tackle problems ranging from tracking local legislation to providing training workshops.
These groups are critical. While established organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy, Research!America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science work to galvanize scientists, they climb an uphill battle against an academic culture that has been struggling to organize on the community level.
We need to encourage and support this emerging wave of student-led science advocacy. Thankfully, with support from Schmidt Futures, the National Science Policy Network (NSPN), is stepping up to do just that. NSPN is a national network of science policy groups led by early career scientists. Our work focuses on providing training and resources that strengthen the community and foster a network of engaged scientists.
This year, the NSPN is focused on three major activities. First, we are creating a microgrant program focused on supporting local university science groups to host events or pursue novel ideas in support of science policy. Second, we are collaborating with Research!America to infuse more science advocacy into this election year. Finally, we will be hosting a daylong science policy symposium in New York City in the fall of 2018 for student groups across the country to learn from each other.
To allow the broader community to connect with NSPN’s initiatives and collaborative projects, we have launched a new Web page. The site contains live-streamed seminars, a library of tools and resources, group lists and a shared calendar.
This is just the beginning. Scientific expertise, critical thinking, and data-driven decision-making skills have immense value when translated from the laboratory to government. We are excited to work with others in a growing movement that is bringing attention to the scientific considerations at play in policy and diplomacy, and to the ways scientists can become involved.
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