We just, like, made this happen…

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog, professional development, science outreach, science policy

On a sunny afternoon in January, I found myself sitting around, eating shawarma, exhausted from having completed Colorado’s first Early Career Scientist Day. Surrounding the excitement was a sense of bewilderment: Had we really just pulled this off? Just a few months earlier we had dreamed up the idea of inviting researchers from all around the state to present their work to legislators at the capitol.  Out of frustration over the lack of scientific expertise in our legislature, came over fifty posters explaining cutting-edge research to our legislators, and we had just made it happen.

Like many scientists, I have been surprised and angry with the dearth of science in policy-making decisions. This lack of scientific understanding isn’t recent. At the national level, Congress has been at a loss to understand rapidly changing science and technology since they killed the Office of Technology Assessment in the 1990’s. At the local level, this problem is even worse; one state representative (a rare scientist in politics) said his favorite moment as a legislator came when he got to stand up and vote against a power project stating “it violates the second law of thermodynamics.”

Early in the morning, the rotunda started filling up with posters and eager researchers.

From perpetual motion power plants to “abortion reversal treatments,” most of our legislators are woefully lacking when it comes to scientific information and understanding. So it was with excitement and trepidation that I took the position of Chair of Government Relations with Project Bridge last August. Many of us feel helpless when we see large groups of legislators not only misunderstanding science but actively denying it. Since 2016, many groups have taken action to remedy this problem. From direct action to comedy, scientists have been taking a more active role in communicating the value of our work.

Proclamation from the governor!

Amidst this feeling of helplessness, we decided to act. Ultimately, I want to set up a database of scientists who could be available to advise on legislation as it is being created and testify for it when it comes up for a vote, a mini-OTA (please let me know if you are interested in signing up for this). As a pilot, we decided to bring the scientists to the capitol for what scientists do best: a poster session.

In just a few months, we recruited over fifty early career scientists representing all of the universities and most of the national labs in Colorado. We trained the researchers to present their work without jargon and to focus on outcomes rather than methods and background. We called our state legislators, and nearly two-thirds of them signed on to co-sponsor the day. As the sun rose, we filled the capitol rotunda with posters; excited scientists in business attire stepped up to present their work to the people who get to decide the direction of our state. The governor declared it Early Career Scientist Day.

(Left to right) The author (Matthew Davidson) poses with researchers Megan Ross and Cathy Bodine and state representative John Kefalas.

I don’t know if we saved science on that day. We did something important though. Our legislators saw the great work being done in our state. Several of them actively sought out their constituent’s posters. Many of them were surprised such great research was being done in their district. As we digested lunch, we were still in disbelief. Something we dreamed up a few months prior had happened.  We had made it happen. All it took was getting up and doing it.  For all the work it required, it was significantly (p<0.05) easier than what we expected.

I’m continuing to work with Project Bridge to bridge the gap between scientists and non-scientists, and I am looking for new ways to take action. We are up against pretty stiff odds, but it turns out that it’s not that hard to start making a difference. What kinds of science advocacy projects have you been sitting on, waiting for the right motivation to make it happen? Get out there, join a science outreach group or start your own. Taking the first step is the hardest, then it’s just a matter of sticking with it.

I’d love to hear your ideas and actions in the comments!


*Photo Credits: Carrie Coleman

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