Help to shape policy with your science

Decision-makers need input from researchers on issues involving science and society.
Taken from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06038-4
Megan Evans got a crash course in science policy in 2011. As a research assistant at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, she joined a project helping the Australian government to develop a tool to compensate for the environmental effects of commercial land development and other activities. If a protected species might be harmed, for example, the ‘biodiversity offset’ tool would help the government to determine how much extra habitat to set aside. Evans loved the project’s applied nature.
Many early-career researchers are drawn to the intersection of science and policy, says Evans, now an honorary research fellow at the Centre for Policy Futures at the University of Queensland. But it can be hard to know where to start, she says. And there can be career penalties for junior scientists. Policy-based work can be time-consuming and hard to fund, and helping to shape a law or management plan might not look as good on a tenure application as do high-profile publications. All scientists must also cope with the political realities of helping to translate scientific evidence — replete with uncertainties — into clear-cut laws and regulations. Because of this, many say, science can underpin good policy, but rarely defines it.
Even so, engaging in policy has never been more important, says Tateo Arimoto, a science-policy expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. Society and the world are changing rapidly, he says, and policymakers need scientific evidence to guide decisions on issues from climate change to artificial intelligence. “The mission of modern science is not only creating new knowledge,” he says, but “using scientific knowledge to address social issues”.
Researchers can take proactive measures to increase the policy impact of their work. They should establish strong relationships with elected officials or government staff members, and learn to provide clear and concise summaries of existing scientific evidence to help policymakers to understand the options. Scientists and policymakers can also collaborate on projects aimed at real-world questions. The important thing is to be humble and open, Evans says. “If you want to engage with policy, you need to go cap in hand, and say, ‘How can I help?’”

Connect and observe

The first step, Evans says, is to connect with policymakers. In a paper this July designed to help other early-career scientists to navigate the policy landscape1, Evans and Chris Cvitanovic, a researcher at the University of Tasmania’s Centre for Marine Socioecology in Hobart, suggest that scientists first observe how policymaking works for their issue of interest. Approaches such as reading the news and setting up Google alerts for relevant keywords are helpful, they say.
Then, scientists can determine who in the policy world might be interested in particular aspects of their work and why, and how those people interact with one another. Lawmakers, officials in a national government’s executive branch and their aides could be one audience, as could staff members at government agencies who implement those policies. Evans recommends sketching a map of potential contacts that researchers can refine over time.
Senior scientists with existing policy contacts can help early-career researchers to make connections. Scientists can also introduce themselves and their work to the legislators who represent their home districts. “It can be as simple as getting out of the office and going to talk to people face to face,” says David Rose, an environmental geographer at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, who studies science and policy. He also advises scientists to contact groups of lawmakers who are interested in the issues they study. For instance, members of the US Congress have created caucuses, or alliances, to advance neuroscience and planetary science. The United Kingdom has all-party parliamentary groups on such topics as cancer and wildlife conservation, and, in Australia, parliament has ‘friendship groups’ focused on science and medicines.
Rose also recommends setting up meetings with government employees who provide science advice to lawmakers, such as members of the European Union’s Parliamentary Research Service, or government science advisers. Peter Gluckman, who was chief science adviser to the prime minister of New Zealand until June 2018, says that for maximum impact, written letters highlighting an issue or providing science advice should come from a professional society, institute or national academy. Still, blogging and using social media can increase visibility for scientists and the issues they want to emphasize, Evans says, and Twitter can help in connecting with key policymakers.
Researchers might also forge fruitful relationships with employees of the government agencies and departments that work to enact existing legislation. For example, California laws require the state to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, partly by storing more carbon in soils. So Katharine Mach, a climate-assessment scientist at Stanford University in Stanford, California, has been helping the state’s agriculture, forestry and other agencies to evaluate the benefits of land-management practices such as adding compost or charcoal to soils.
Mach and her colleagues joined the effort at the invitation of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, both in California, which sought the researchers’ expertise in policy-relevant climate science. But Mach says that scientists at any career stage can help to shape government programmes. One effective way, she says, is to submit letters and evaluations when officials solicit public feedback on proposed regulations or plans of action. “Those are incredibly important and also kind of fun,” she says. “You are thinking in real time about a good approach.” She signs up to government e-mail lists to stay apprised of upcoming workshops and requests for input. (Alternatively, Evans says, researchers can make connections by offering to give a talk at an agency or in a department’s regular seminar series.)

Meet and greet

Toni Lyn Morelli, an ecologist at the US Geological Survey in Amherst, Massachusetts, recommends attending a variety of conferences. She wanted to connect with state wildlife officials about her work on the future of streams in which cold-water fish live. She decided against organizing a session at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America because she knew that few managers would attend. So she went to a conference hosted by the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, where she reserved a room and invited managers to stop and talk — and eat pizza. “We got great people.”
When scientists get involved in policy, they should be careful not to advocate for specific solutions, warns Gluckman. Instead, he says, quoting from a book by political scientist and public-policy expert Roger Pielke Jr, a scientist should be an ‘honest broker’, helping policymakers to understand possible policy options and their consequences.
This was Craig Downs’s approach when he helped Hawaiian legislators to draft a bill to ban sun creams containing chemicals that research from Downs and others has shown to be harmful to coral reefs2. Downs, an ecotoxicologist and director of the non-profit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Clifford, Virginia, explained to lawmakers the chemicals’ impacts and the implications of policy options, such as imposing a temporary or a permanent ban, but didn’t advocate for one in particular. He knew that legislators had to balance many factors, including how the ban might affect sun-cream manufacturers. (Facing strong public pressure, the lawmakers passed a permanent ban in May. It was approved last month.)

Tateo Arimoto

Japanese science-policy expert Tateo Arimoto uses scientific knowledge to address social issues.Credit: IISD/ENB/Kiara Worth

In any interaction, Rose says, it’s important to use clear, accessible language and, if possible, to tell a compelling story about the science. Most of all, scientists should understand that policymakers rarely want to hear about the results of a researcher’s latest peer-reviewed study. When Rose polled members of the UK Parliament, he found that most wanted a succinct overview of the current body of knowledge on an issue3. Arimoto says that researchers should try to bring in as many threads as possible that might be relevant to policy. “Individual scientists need not only the capability of analysis, but also to synthesize,” he says.
Downs suggests honing a three-minute ‘elevator pitch’ for in-person meetings with lawmakers. Gluckman advises scientists to prepare written materials as policy briefs, leading with key points, offering relevant caveats and then laying out possible options. (Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, offers an online guide; researchers can also contribute to scientific reviews targeted at policymakers, such as those published by the Oxford Martin School, UK, and the Campbell Collaboration in Oslo.)
Scientists can seek in-depth training on how to interact with policymakers. Gluckman chairs the International Network for Government Science Advice, which hosts conferences and workshops that bring together scientists and policymakers worldwide. Many universities and professional organizations, including the American Institute for Biological Sciences in McLean, Virginia, offer ‘boot camps’ for researchers.
Gluckman also recommends that scientists take a sabbatical in the policymaking sphere. For instance, one can apply to be a Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or to be a research fellow at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. Scientists can also take a temporary appointment at a government science agency, the United Nations, the World Health Organization or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), among others. Those who have policy experience, Gluckman says, learn how to operate in both worlds.

Slow burn

Scientists who engage in policy should not expect immediate results. The diffusion of science into policy is often incremental, says Matthew MacLeod, an environmental chemist at Stockholm University. His research group is designing a new version of the test that the OECD recommends countries use to assess bioaccumulation of a substance when deciding how to regulate it. His version takes less than half the time of the standard test and requires about one-third of the fish, which serve as the test subjects. But he anticipates that it will be ten years before it’s adopted.
Often, a catalysing event piques policymakers’ appetite for scientific evidence. That’s why scientists should make a long-term investment in policy work, Evans says, and be ready to act when the opportunity arises. For instance, she recalls, the Australian government decided to implement the biodiversity-offsets project when a new minister took office, and drew on well-established research. “We ended up being able to use that science really quickly.” Evans adds that researchers should pay attention to changes in administrations in their own and other jurisdictions that might increase the receptiveness of policymakers to scientific evidence.
There can be cases, however, when the evidence isn’t yet strong enough to spur action, says Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. For example, he says, research over the past decade on whether neonicotinoid pesticides harm bees hasn’t yielded clear answers about population-level effects. In an opinion article earlier this year, Boyd explained he had become convinced that the chemicals were being used more widely than was recognized and offered growers only a marginal benefit4. However, he lamented the lack of rigorous studies quantifying the actual danger they posed to pollinators. The United Kingdom ultimately backed the EU’s decision to ban the chemicals.
To make sure science influences policy, it’s best to collaborate with policymakers from the start, says Mach. “Scientists doing science in isolation won’t know what questions are most relevant, and also won’t really influence decisions,” she says. Collaboration requires reaching out to policymakers and agency staff long before research begins, listening closely to their questions and needs, and shaping studies around those. After that, she says, scientists must maintain regular contact, share preliminary results and be ready to change the focus of a research project in response to feedback.
It’s challenging, but Mach and others find working at the interface of science and policy extremely rewarding. After all, like many researchers, Mach went into science eager to tackle issues that matter. “There’s something that’s really motivating about doing science that is attuned to the bigger picture,” she says.

Nature 560, 671-673 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06038-4

Scientists and Policymakers – Not Such Strange Bedfellows

Taken from http://blogs.plos.org/scicomm/2017/11/30/scientists-and-policymakers/
By Helena Lucente, Ph.D. Student, University of Utah, Cancer Research
The March for Science was a turning point in science communication. For the first time, scientists and science supporters were part of a movement to advance science education, communication, and promote science in policymaking. The current administration has threatened the scientific enterprise in this country in a number of ways, including:

  • Proposing a budget that would cut funding to federal science and medical research institutions
  • Appointing science deniers to positions of leadership
  • Withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement

The anti-science political agenda was a call to action for scientists to get out of the lab and into the streets. The passion that motivated me to pursue my PhD is the same passion that inspired me to get involved in science communication and policy. As a scientist, I would have the opportunity to give back to the community and impact lives. Discoveries made in the scientific world today can be translated into clinical treatments for patients and new knowledge for aspiring students tomorrow. I joined the University of Utah specifically because they had created a dual degree program (Med-into-Grad Program) to train basic scientists in medicine and translational research, so they could bridge the understanding between research and medicine.
With the change in the political climate and the public outcry for science in 2017 I felt galvanized to do something to give back and help. Science communication and policy was away for me to bridge understanding this time between scientist, politicians, and the community. I enrolled in communication training through the STEM Ambassador Program (STEMAP).  With the help of this program I approached Utah state representatives and discussed the role scientists can play in decision-making. I met with Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (D) and Representative Edward Redd (R) to get a bipartisan perspective on science in government.
To me, the worlds of science and policymaking seem far apart in culture, language, and ways of taking action, so I felt anxious in the waiting room of Representative Chavez-Houck. My expectation was that legislative priorities would leave little time to speak with a graduate student. These notions were quickly dispelled; she spent an hour patiently explaining the unique challenges legislators face and how scientists can get involved in government. In fact, I learned that Representative Chavez-Houck was as passionate as I was to involve scientists in lawmaking. She introduced me to Representative Edward Redd (R), a medical doctor who approaches his own work as a legislator with a keen understanding of how informed legislative decisions benefit from science. This meeting gave me insights on scientific culture (for more on this, see my post on the American Society for Cell Biology blog) and a bipartisan perspective on science in government. The policymakers felt the community viewed scientists as isolated and unapproachable.
Talking with Democratic and Republican leaders taught me what each party values. I learned the importance of shaping an argument that speaks to the values of both parties and their constituents and how, even with different values, they had the potential to reach the same conclusions. For example, a political agenda that greatly impacts scientists and Utahans is transferring ownership of public lands to the state. A scientist may advocate for protecting and preserving these ecological treasures by keeping them as public lands. However, that scientist must appeal to all politicians not just those who support environmental conservation. If a politician values balancing the budget, then a scientist could appeal to their economic desires. They could explain that the debt the state government may incur by maintaining public lands could far out way the financial gains they would expect to make from tourism/recreation, oil, or mining causing financial instability. It was refreshing to learn that, at the state level, representatives of different political parties with differing values could reach the same conclusion and had a strong respect for the contribution of each.
Meeting with policymakers taught me a lot about scientists’ role in the government, and I wanted to share what I learned with others who are interested in becoming more involved. For other scientists who wish to interact with legislators, I have three pieces of advice.

  1. Understand legislators’ priorities.

Legislators must consider multiple values when they make decision, so scientific values must be weighed along with the values of their constituents. Prior to meeting with a legislator, scientists should learn the priorities of that legislator and their constituents. Many legislators have a webpage where you can view their voting history and bills sponsored. Some have a newsletter you can sign up for.

  1. Be objective

It is important that scientists remain non-partisan when presenting information. Legislators may dismiss valid scientific research presented if it is framed in a political context. One very powerful example of what happens when science becomes politically charged is when former Vice President Gore became the face of global climate change. Climate change was no longer viewed for its scientific merits, but as a liberal agenda. People who disagree with his political ideology may dismiss the valid scientific research he presented. If scientists present their data directly to lawmakers, objectively and regardless of political affiliation, politicians are more likely to consider their conclusions when making decisions moving forward.

  1. Build relationships

Most importantly, trust is built overtime. Scientists need to meet their representatives and establish a relationship, so that legislators feel comfortable calling on them when making decisions. It is best to contact representatives when the legislator is out of session because they will have more time to meet. After I had established a relationship with Representative Chavez-Houck over multiple meetings, she invited me to two events for bringing STEM businesses to Utah and promoting STEM education. She identified me as a scientist who was concerned about science policy, advocacy, and education, and offered me opportunities to connect with other policymakers and constituents on these issues.
Thus, although I came to these legislators without a specific advocacy agenda, I was able to build relationships with legislators that led to a working relationship and real opportunities to provide scientifically sound insights into decisions on science education for youth in our state. With a relatively small investment of time – less than ten hours for preparation and meetings – I had a small, but real, influence on bridging science and society. My scientific pursuits will likely take me away from Utah in the future; however, I will take the important lessons I have learned here to continue to follow my passion to give back by engaging in my community and investing in my local and state government.

About Helena Lucente
Helena Lucente wants to bridge the gap between science and society through improving science advocacy, policy, education and communication. She is pursuing her Ph.D. in Oncological Sciences and M.S. in Clinical Investigation at the University of Utah. She can be reached on Twitter at @HelenaLucente1 and via email at Helena.Lucente@hci.utah.edu.

Here's How The New Tax Plan Could Hurt Graduate Students

Here’s How The New Tax Plan Could Hurt Graduate Students

The new tax plan introduced by House Republicans could have negative implications for universities, graduate students and those with student loans. Many grad students – especially in Ph.D. programs – receive tuition waivers in exchange for teaching classes or doing research. Under current law, that money isn’t taxed as income.


The new tax plan introduced by House Republicans could have negative implications for universities, graduate students and those with student loans.
Many grad students — especially in Ph.D. programs — receive tuition waivers in exchange for teaching classes or doing research. Under current law, that money isn’t taxed as income. But the new bill calls for those tuition waivers to be counted as income and subjected to income taxes.
That means graduate students would be paying taxes on money they never receive.
Kelly Balmes is finishing up a master’s degree — on her way to a Ph.D. — in atmosphere and sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Balmes, 24, is from Chicago, so her out-of-state tuition is $30,000 a year. It’s paid for through grants; money she never sees.
The university pays her a yearly stipend of about $30,000 in exchange for her work in research and as a teaching assistant. That’s considered minimum wage in Seattle — about $15 an hour.
In 2016, she paid income taxes on her teaching stipend and ended up owing the government $2,334.

If the tax bill passes, the grant that covers tuition will be viewed as additional income. If the numbers remain the same, Balmes’ total income before deductions becomes $61,398 — nearly double what she filed last year.
She would owe $7,488, about $5,000 more.
“This makes graduate school unattainable for anybody not already very well off,” Balmes says. “It also creates a diversity problem, which graduate STEM programs already have.”

What else will be affected if the bill is passed:

  1. Endowments: The bill would levy a tax of 1.4 percent on net investment income for well-endowed private colleges. After an outcry from some universities, the language was adjusted so the tax would apply only to well-endowed colleges with $250,000 or more in the bank per full-time student.
  2. Student loan interest, tuition reductions and education assistance: If you make less than $80,000 and are paying back your student loans, you will no longer be able to deduct up to $2,500. Also, employers who cover some of their employees’ college costs would have that money taxed.
  3. College tax credit consolidation:Three tax credits — American opportunity tax credit, lifetime learning credit and Hope scholarship credit — would be consolidated into one credit. This would include a $2,000 credit for families spending money on college tuition, books and supplies.
  4. Coverdell Education Savings Accounts: The bill would phase out Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, which allow families to invest money for college without the funds being taxed.
  5. Tax bills for death and disability:The House plan would put an end to forgiving student debt because of death or disability.

Of the 145,000 students in graduate programs receiving these tuition waivers, about 60 percent are in STEM programs, according to the Department of Education.
If the House bill passes, Balmes might have to reconsider getting her Ph.D. and stop her education at a master’s, she says. “It’s upsetting because it wouldn’t really be my decision.”
She hopes that the Senate’s tax plan will be passed instead because under that one there are no changes to tax credits or tuition waivers.
Colleges and universities have also raised concerns about the House bill.
Carnegie Mellon University, a private school in Pittsburgh known for programs in science and technology, is one of the many schools — including Boston University — speaking out.
CMU sent faculty an email saying it was monitoring how the bill would impact students and faculty.
“Any provision that would make higher education more costly for students, effectively reducing access, will harm American families and undermine the mission of higher education and CMU,” wrote interim President Farnam Jahanian. “That includes proposals to tax graduate student stipends, eliminate tax deductions for student loans, or reduce incentives for employers to contribute to tuition.”
He said there are long-term benefits to investing in graduate students.
“The education we provide undergraduates and graduate students is one of the most powerful engines for their future success and ability to contribute to society.”