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AAAS Member and Fellow Melanie Roberts Works with Scientists and Policy Makers to Solve Puzzles, Understand Society

Melanie Roberts
Melanie Roberts. Credit: PNNL.

AAAS Member and Fellow Melanie Roberts is not discouraged by the tenuous position that science occupies in today’s political climate. By helping scientists and policy makers know the role they play, Roberts hopes to get the two sides talking. “Science can help us understand what the problem is and how different interventions might change it, while policy is about evaluating different courses of action to address that problem,” she says.

Working all over Washington State as the director of state and regional affairs at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), she is a conduit that links the two groups—scientists and policy makers—that would ordinarily never meet. “My job is to be a connector,” she says.

Roberts was part of many conversations about science in policy at this year’s 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington, where she was inducted as a AAAS Fellow. “I am very honored to be selected as a AAAS Fellow and it’s an added bonus that it is happening in my home town.” She is also incoming chair-elect for the section on societal impacts of science and engineering.

It was not by accident that Roberts found herself in her current position as AAAS Fellow and director of state and regional affairs at PNNL. Her first AAAS Annual Meeting in 2003 that took place in Denver during her fourth year of graduate school influenced her decision to transition from a doctoral student in neuroscience to science policy. She would later be selected as an AAAS S&T Policy Fellow and also work as the founding Executive Director for AAAS’s Emerging Leaders in Science & Society program (which ended in 2017) where multi-disciplinary teams of graduate students collaborated on projects to address community needs.

She is now working to develop a similar program at PNNL—an innovation training for leadership development. “We are looking at a problem in our region and thinking about how PNNL can be helpful,” she says. This year’s innovation challenge is how to improve plastics recycling in Washington State. Until recently, China gobbled up most of our recycling materials. Since they stopped buying much of this material in 2017, states across the U.S. have found themselves trapped with rising mountains of recyclable waste. The state of Washington started a recycling development center to help figure out solutions to this problem. “It is a good time for us to help inform their options,” Roberts says.

Generally, Roberts’ work begins when government officials call on PNNL to help them understand the scientific and technical aspects of an issue in the news. For example, state government officials recently invited PNNL experts to brief them on perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of chemicals that has accumulated in the environment and many cause adverse health effects.

Roberts has found that, at the state level, there are more areas of agreement than disagreement. For example, she said that most legislators agree that limiting carbon emissions is desirable, even if they don’t agree what should be done about it. According to Roberts, science never tells you what to do about a problem by itself. While science provides insight about a problem, ultimately economics, politics and other factors determine how to solve it, she says. “I think there are good opportunities to work together across parties. At PNNL, we are asked by members of both sides of the isle to provide information,” she says.

Building trust and getting a conversation going between scientists and the public is an elaborate process. “My job is to be the expert non-expert,” she says. “I tell the scientists that they need help me understand what they do and why it matters.” She delights in her role as a facilitator, honest broker and a trusted resource for science and technology information. She prods scientists to relay what they know in a format that is understandable to non-expert audiences and to turn unreadable graphs into memorable visuals or stories. “It’s important to resonate with your audience,” she says.

She credits AAAS for offering programs to increase scientists’ ability to communicate with the public and policymakers and for new initiatives that provide opportunities for open and honest dialogue. “In-person dialogue rather than online shouting and trolling,” she said, goes a long way in breaking the ice between the scientists, policymakers and the public.

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