Science policy and advocacy: Get involved

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog, science policy

Science policy and advocacy can be a great way for postdocs and graduate student to broaden the impact of their research, even while they are still in their lab. Here are a few tips on how to do just that.

In my last blog post, I explained why I am interested in a career in science policy. But what is science policy and advocacy? You might image lawmakers in Washington D.C. debating hot research topics like stem cell research and climate change. While science policy professionals may weigh in on these topics, they can also be found advocating for funding of scientific research, debating how that money gets distributed, and deciding how scientific institutions should operate. Scientists can be found working in all three branches of the federal government, and in many other companies and organizations that work in policy.

If you’re also interested in exploring a career in science policy, or even if you just want to be a science policy-minded scientist, there’s no better way than getting some experience while you’re still a student or post-doc. There are many resources available online and a lot of advocacy can be done locally. No matter where you live, you can get involved. Below are my top five tips for getting started in science policy.

Don’t go it alone.

Chances are, you aren’t the only person on campus who is interested in getting involved with science policy. I joined the Johns Hopkins Science Policy Group (JHSPG) soon after it was founded, and have enjoyed expanding our impact in my position as Advocacy Chair. There are several coalitions of student groups across the country, including the National Science Policy Group, and the East Coast Science Advocacy Hub. Find out if there is a group on your campus already, and if there isn’t start one! It is easier to gain momentum if you have a group of peers who have shared interests. There is also a large science policy and advocacy community on Twitter! Search for #scipol for some ideas on who to follow and what people are talking about.

Learn science policy from the best.

There are tons of resources out there for scientists at all stages to get involved in science policy! The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has some of the best-known science policy resources, but many professional organizations including the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), Biophysical Society, and Society for Neuroscience also have science policy or advocacy committees. Reach out to your society to see what resources they have, and ways you can get involved. Many of these societies sponsor fellowships, Hill Days, and local outreach programs for their members. I recently attended the AAAS CASE Workshop and ASBMB Hill Day, both of which I would highly recommend to any student looking for an introduction to science policy.

Start small.

One of the easiest ways to be a science policy advocate is to make phone calls and write letters to your representatives. You can pick up the phone at any time, without even leaving your lab, and it usually takes 30 seconds or less! Phone calls are also an easy way to introduce new people to science policy. Daniel Pham, who is now the Public Affairs Manager at ASBMB, pioneered the “Eat and Advocate” event during his time as a student and founder of Project Bridge. Organizers provide a bit of background information, sample call scripts, representatives’ contact information, and (most importantly) breakfast and coffee. You can find a handy “How-to” guide on Project Bridge’s website here. There are also science policy issues at the local and state level, where a few people can have a really large impact. Look around your town, city, or state for opportunities to get involved—you might be surprised at how much of an impact you can have!

Postcards to Congress from Johns Hopkins Science Policy Group.

Expand your reach.

Sometimes it can get tiring to continually reach out to your own representatives, especially when they already agree with you on many issues. One way to be more effective is to tap into national resources that allow you to contact voters in other states. This year, Indivisible used a calling tool to connect people in blue states with moderate voters in Alaska, Arizona, Maine, and Colorado, to ask them to call their representatives on proposed cuts to Obamacare, as well as the GOP tax plan. It even allowed callers to patch the constituent directly through to their representative’s office. This tool helped me feel more effective in my science policy advocacy in just a few minutes.

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

When beginning a new project, it can be tempting to dream big and come up with a million new ideas on how to tackle it. A smart step, however, is to do some research and find out if anyone in your area is already working on a similar science policy issue. Last fall, I became interested in drug pricing policy after the first CAR-T therapies were approved by the FDA. I connected with Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative (MCHI), an organization dedicated to helping people access needed healthcare and medicine. Last year MCHI helped Maryland pass some of the first legislation in the country to prevent price gouging on prescription medicines. This year, MCHI hoped to build on that success to pass further legislation to help patients access their prescription drugs at fair costs. JHSPG was able to volunteer our time, helping MCHI with things including coalition building (gathering signatures of support from individuals and organizations), making 1-page summaries of the bills and persuasive infographics, staffing science policy day in the state capital, and calling lawmakers to gather support. We were able to pass one of our proposed bills, which was a really exciting outcome for newbie science policy wonks like us!


Do you have any more tips for getting involved in science policy and advocacy as a trainee? Let me know on twitter @lscairns18!


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