Sometimes, you got to call it like you see it.
“Scientists really suck at talking to people,” says Amy Sharma, the vice president of Science for Georgia, a nonprofit launched in 2018 to increase public engagement with science and science in policy. Don’t worry, Sharma can say that with authority – she’s an entrepreneur, biomedical engineer and radiation physicist. “We certainly aren’t very good at communicating what’s important to someone who is not a scientist. What we find fascinating and interesting often has no everyday relevance.”
Science for Georgia is working to change that by giving scientists tools and opportunities to engage on state issues they care about with legislators. The organization provides workshops to help scientists identify key messages, and how to talk or write about them in a way that will interest the public and policymakers. The group also invites scientists along with them to meetings with lawmakers, so they can learn the ropes of scientific outreach in an accessible way.
“It’s like when you were in college and you didn’t want to talk to your professors, and then by senior year or grad school you realize, oh, they’re people too,” Sharma says.
This mission aligns perfectly with AAAS’ Local Science Engagement Network (LSEN), which aims to support AAAS Members getting involved in outreach in their own communities. So last April, AAAS partnered with Science for Georgia as the official LSEN chapter for the state.
“Having the heft of AAAS behind us, that’s really opening up a lot of doors and accelerating things we want to do,” Sharma says.
For example, LSEN funding has enabled Sharma to hire seven science communication interns. Over the past year, the undergraduate and graduate students have helped identify key issues in the state and develop fact sheets for the public, primarily focused on water conservation, education and food security. In just a short time, the interns have learned a lot to further their careers.
“The most challenging part of communicating science to different audiences is making sure your goals are specific and attainable,” says Tanisha Ghosh, who in interning with Science for Georgia while working on her Master’s in Public Health at Emory University.
When it comes to increasing public engagement with science, the GA LSEN team aims to provide a path to advocacy, grounded in science. First, they present information for people to learn about an issue, and then suggest easy actions “that a normal human can do,” Sharma says. For example, the group’s beach stewardship guide provides simple steps to help protect the coastal ecosystem, such as filling in holes dug in the sand and turning off lights at night, both of which help baby sea turtles make it to the water safely.
They know that some people will become excited and want to do more. So, the team also offers further insights based on scientific data, and ways folks can contact their representatives about the issue.
They are currently hosting a virtual Scavenger Hunt to the Sea, which enables anyone to learn more about Georgia’s waterways. “Even if you are in Arizona or Colorado, you can participate, and perhaps use it as inspiration for doing something like this for your state,” Sharma says.
When it comes to communicating with policymakers in Georgia’s polarized political climate, the team takes a nuanced approach.
“In Georgia, just like the rest of the country, everything is polarized, from voting, to mask-wearing, to food-aid,” Sharma says. “We don’t want to alienate one side of the aisle or another by using phrases that automatically shut down the conversation.”
For example, when discussing water conservation issues, they focus less on climate change and pure environmental benefits, and more on how water quality affects human health, the agricultural industry and the potential upside for attracting new businesses.
The approach is paying off. Notably, they joined forces with the Georgia Water Coalition, which includes a large and diverse group of organizations, from garden clubs and riverkeepers, to hunting and fishing associations, to champion a state bill (House Bill 511) protecting trust funds for 10 conservation, public health and education programs. For a long time, those funds have been diverted to other budget priorities.
As part of their outreach, Science for Georgia helped organize a Virtual Legislative Day, meeting with nine legislators to discuss House Bill 511. While a majority were already in favor, one lawmaker switched to voting for the bill, after hearing from local scientists about why it was important to them that small fees, like those collected for tire sale and disposal, actually get used for their intended purpose. The bill passed this March.
“That was a big win, which builds on 20 years of work by the Georgia Water Coalition,” says Sharma.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges, it has normalized remote communication, allowing Science for Georgia to build alliances across the state. The virtual meetings are also helping build up their reputation as trusted sources of unbiased information. More and more policymakers now know they can call Science for Georgia with any kind of science question, be it about lead in drinking water, or the environmental impacts of a proposed mine near the Okefenokee Swamp.
For Sharma, it’s been invigorating to help translate science for the public and policymakers. She credits her previous AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship equipping her with the tools for communicating and engaging on the policy level, which she can now share with other scientists in Georgia.
“It was drilled into me that you meet with people, and you should speak up and your voice should be heard,” she says. “I hope other scientists and friends of science will join us in this outreach effort and to bring a scientific perspective to policy issues. The facts don’t actually speak for themselves, we have to give them a voice.”