Rachel Owen earned her Ph.D. in soil science, studying the impact of a changing climate on wetland ecosystems and landowner perceptions of climate threats. But some of her other skills, as a diplomat and a “science translator,” are just as crucial in helping Missouri lawmakers navigate complicated scientific issues.
Owen is the executive director of MOST, The Missouri Science and Technology Policy Initiative. In 2016, she started the group with two other graduate students to explore what science advising at the state level might look like. The aim was to make non-partisan experts available to state legislators; to answer questions about the complex science topics crossing their desks.
Her timing couldn’t have been better. The trio of grad students talked with legislators over a couple of sessions of the General Assembly in Jefferson City. Interest was high from the legislators, as the need for straightforward information, minus the political spin, became apparent. Financial support for this promising new resource soon followed, thanks to grants from the University of Missouri and the James S. McDonnell Foundation. Then, Owen took leadership of MOST just after completing her doctorate at the University of Missouri School of Natural Resources, in 2019. The first class of MOST Policy Fellows came on board in the fall of 2020. The fellows were initially tasked with helping navigate proposed legislation on agriculture, education, energy, data management, and healthcare.
And with the help of AAAS, MOST is also able to reach beyond state legislators. Through the Local Science Engagement Network, hundreds of scientists get training and tools to become effective, evidence-based advocates at the local level.
But Owen recalls a bit of a bumpy start. As MOST kicked off, some of the Missouri State Senators and members of the State House were cautious. Owen says it wasn’t a surprise, but the common response was, ‘how are you truly going to make sure that this is nonpartisan?’
“We talked a lot during our training (for MOST fellows) about how to check your individual bias. It's okay to be human. But a lawmaker is more likely to trust you if you can acknowledge that bias, and not just pretend like you are a completely objective person all the time,” Owen says.
Many of the briefings that lawmakers have historically relied on in Missouri, and many other states, skew toward a political party, or an industry line, according to Owen.
“Right now, lawmakers are mostly getting their information from lobbyists.... Oftentimes, (it’s) going to have some sort of an agenda behind it,” Owen says. “Our goal is just to get the science into the conversation.”
Their range of topics is vast. MOST’s health expert, Josh Mueller, Ph. D. for example, is working on COVID-19 questions, a prescription drug monitoring program, needle exchanges, additional training for school nurses, and prophylactic medication for HIV patients.
Owen is quick to point out that MOST’s reputation for fairness and transparency is already getting recognized across the aisle. She says MOST fellows don’t hesitate in saying, "This is what we do know, but we don't know this."
“My favorite story is that in the middle of a committee hearing, after one of our fellows provided testimony, we had a committee chair who said, ‘If y'all haven't heard about MOST, you really need to check them out. They're providing really great information, and they're a great resource.’”
The importance of the relay of reliable scientific information is something Owen learned in her study of agronomy and global resource systems, where she quickly understood how solutions need to track back with people closest to the challenge at hand. That might be subsistence cassava farmers she worked with in Ghana as an undergraduate, farm owners she met during her master’s research on soil salinity in South Dakota, or members of her own family in the Midwest, who are also farmers. All their livelihoods are tied to the health of the soil.
That kind of anecdotal evidence can provide a valuable, and non-threatening route to tackling polarizing issues.
“We can add in information on how climate change is impacting flooding in our state,” she says. “If I went to a field day, where farmers were talking about the impact of flooding, that gives me something to talk about with a lawmaker and just say, ‘Yeah, I was at this field day in Sedalia, (Missouri) and I'm interested to know if that's something that you're hearing from your constituents as well.’"
When the General Assembly is out of session, fellows work for state agencies, on governor’s task forces, or municipal departments elsewhere in Missouri.
MOST is in partnership with AAAS, as part of its wider scale of policy outreach, through the Local Science Engagement Network (LSEN). There are tools to help explain science topics at a grassroots level, everything from vaccines to driverless cars.
“We were fortunate enough to be selected as one of the first pilot states for the Local Science Engagement Network. It's allowed us to work with hundreds of scientists across the state to provide them resources, to elevate science in not just state-level policy conversations, but all the way down to something their neighborhood association is talking about, or the city council is bringing up, and be able to understand how to be effective advocates in those settings,” Owen says.
Developing trust can also be useful for the formal and informal science communications that STEM professionals convey every day to general audiences. Owen cautions scientists from thinking they will be regarded as unbiased.
“Building that trust, it's been really important to be able to humble ourselves and think about us as part of the equation and part of the conversation, and not the 'right' part of the conversation,” Owen says.