Washington DC science policy trips

The Harvard Graduate Student Science Policy Group does a number of very cool things.  I’m on the executive board so I may be a bit partial, but you have to admit that a focus on opening the window into the world of policy for science phds is pretty cool.  Throughout the year, we put on monthly faculty chats and a J-term course (details).  But perhaps the coolest once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing we do is offer an annual trip to Washington DC to meet with policy groups.  This year we visited (and excuse the listing) the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the House Minority Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, the Department of State Office of the Science Technology Advisor, NASA headquarters, and the Department of Defense Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research.  It was an incredible trip.

If I had to describe a theme of the trip I would say democracy – and I know that sounds cheesy so let me explain.  All of the people that we meet with have many obstacles to using their point of view to influence policy.  As scientists, it is their job to present knowledge and then step back and let policy makers decide the course of action.  We heard over and over again that agencies (such as the EPA) cannot approach the hill and say “This is what you need to be thinking about and working on.”  That would be lobbying.  They have to wait until they are charged with analyzing a problem before they can study it and this is hard for scientist to hear.  We think, “Look, I’ve done all of the work and I’ve got the statistical values and the peer review to show that I am RIGHT.  Now let’s make policy based on my correct work.”  But that isn’t how it works in a democracy.  You may disagree with other people, but you still have to work with them.  This was brought up in literally every meeting we had.  And it seemed to me that for a scientist working in the policy sphere, you have to love the mess of democracy more than the order of science.  I mean, hey, dictatorships are efficient, and what scientist doesn’t love efficiency?  It takes a special breed of scientist to try to use order to influence chaos.

The other theme that flowed through the trip was the importance of communicating science.  It seems like this message is practically slapping me in the face every where I turn lately.  In a meeting with Bill Nye the science guy (another awesome Science Policy Group event) he said the most important thing for scientist to learn is how to tell a story and how to use english.  This was mirrored by all of the people that we met with but perhaps most emphatically by Dr. Joel Scheraga, the Senior Advisor for Climate Adaption at the EPA.  His opinion is that the most important step to take as a graduate student scientist interested in policy is to develop the skill of communicating science in plan understandable English.  He also made it clear that decisions are made everyday and your science needs to be a part of it even though scientists want to wait until the science is done before presenting or discussing it.  It can’t wait until you are done and so scientists need to get comfortable discussing science while it is still in the process and get comfortable discussing science with everyone.  His thought was that all scientists need to be involved with policy in a bottom-up approach by getting the public and policy makers aware of the problem, which relies in a large part on science communication. He suggested that you need to increase awareness, change behavior, and then you can think about how to focus behavior to address the outcome of concern.  This pretty much sums up the big take home message for me at this point in my career.  I’ve got a few years yet in my phd to practice communicating and discussing my science before it is done.  Hell, I’ll get a good shot at that last one this summer when I present at the Evolution and the Cycad conferences!

I also had a good time making a little photo project of the trip.  Hope you enjoy it!

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