Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum (well, some experiments may require a vacuum). All scientists are living and working within society, and that social context matters. What is legal to study? How much funding is available to study it? How will resulting new science and technology be used? These are all essential questions. Ultimately, social context cannot be divorced from the scientific process.
Science policy, most broadly defined, is the branch of public policy that helps shape this interaction between science and its social context at the legal level. It is using science to inform policy as well as setting the policy that governs science. The impact of science policy cannot be overstated, changing science policy can have a major effect on society. In this short blog post, I’d like to explain how all scientists, at different career stages and with different levels of commitment, can have an impact on science policy.
The simplest way to be politically active is to be aware of current events and involved in debates, by forming your own opinions and sharing your views. By engaging the members of the various communities that you belong to — your neighbors, coworkers, colleagues, students, etc. — you can spread awareness about these issue and add nuance to your own views. If you don’t get an opportunity to make your voice heard in an official capacity, then you can always reach out to those who do and let them know your opinion.
Contrary to popular belief, policymakers really do care about what their constituents want. Congressional offices, to give one example, read all of the messages that they receive and will often use this to help decide how to vote. The same goes for the many bureaucratic offices and agencies involved, like the OSTP or the NIH. Although you may not always think of them as lobbyists, one of the most important roles of professional organizations is to lobby the government in support of their members. However, in order for them to lobby for you, you need to let them know your views! Finally most universities and many companies maintain government relations offices whose role is to help you interface with the government and to lobby on your behalf. By writing any of these offices, you may influence the debate and ultimately the policy. One pro tip I’ve learned is that a handwritten letter often receives a much more thorough reading than an e-mail.
Another option, if you can spare the time, is to work directly on science policy. One example is the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program, which is a yearlong program in which scientists work fulltime in the federal government on science policy. There are myriad other opportunities available. Many of these opportunities are aimed at students or recent graduates, however, many are also available to scientists at any stage in their career. The AAAS STPF, for instance, would welcome faculty using their sabbatical to participate.
Ensuring that governments properly use science to make decisions and continues to support scientific research is of paramount importance. As a scientist you are well positioned to weigh in on and influence this process. Your expertise and opinions matter in the ever-evolving relationship between science and society. Consider using some of the options highlighted above to make your voice heard and shape the kind of future that you want to see.