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Young Scientists Who Are Making Science Policy a Priority

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Avital Percher, Michaela Rikard, Holly Mayton (from left to right). Credit: Sean Harris/ Robb Cohen Photography & Video.

Many scientists feel like facts and science are threatened under the current presidential administration. Young scientists in particular are sounding the alarm, pointing to recent federal policy proposals and scientific research funding cuts as reasons for marching and organizing. These are also the reasons three early-career scientists launched the National Science Policy Network (NSPN), to fight the battle against what they call “myopic actions of this administration” by bringing scientists to decision makers.

According to its three student leaders, the NSPN’s goal is helping scientists who want to engage in policymaking and public discourse to communicate with the public and with those who have a seat at the table – something they feel has not been traditionally offered to scientists. The concept for NSPN was first founded by early-career scientists and engineers in spring 2013; it was then called the National Science Policy Group and was founded by Sam Brinton, Ph.D., who is now Head of Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention organization for LGBTQ youth.

The revival of NSPN is all thanks to Michaela Rikard, a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, Avital Percher, Ph.D., a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, and Holly Mayton, P.hD., a post-doctoral researcher in chemical engineering at the University of Virginia. Rikard and Percher had teamed up in 2017 to form an east coast regional science policy network with funding from Schmidt Futures. When Percher and Rikard met Mayton at the AAAS annual meeting in 2018, it was fortuitous—Mayton was at the University of California Riverside at the time and was in a prime position to take this idea to the west coast.

Today, NSPN is working to provide resources, networking and training to over 50 science policy groups across the U.S. to empower them and give them the tools to find meaningful ways to engage with the public and policymakers. “We want to spread this idea to as many states as possible,” said Rikard.

Despite this growing interest in science advocacy, the resources are still not there. “Many students have no access to courses in science policy,” said Rikard. That’s why the members of NSPN are working to bridge that gap and provide support in various ways.

NSPN initiatives include a microgrant fund to support local university science groups so that they can host events, pursue novel science policy ideas and participate in various competitions – such as an international memo writing competition – and science policy symposia. Also this year, NSPN is collaborating with Research!America to include more science advocacy into upcoming elections.

 “Our mission is to provide support to these groups so that they can better organize and have stronger voices,” said Percher, who is the chief executive officer of NSPN. The vision, said Percher, is to normalize scientists’ engagement, and to provide tools and support for any scientist who decides not to stay in academia, but opts to work on a local or federal level. “I see our role as helping early-career scientists and researchers gain skills in science policy and communication and making sure these skills are used to help them obtain internships, fellowships and jobs,” added Mayton, who serves as NSPN’s chief operating officer.

This example of policy and public engagement is something scientists themselves, particularly those who are in the early stages of their career, are apparently clamoring for today. According to a 2018 NSFN survey of 22 early-career science policy groups on university campuses, as many as 45 percent of these groups were formed sometime in the previous year and a half. “Even before 2016, Ph.D.s were looking for careers outside academia,” said Rikard. There was a need for more scientists and engineers in the private sector, involved in policy at the state, federal and local level. And, says Rikard, there was a growing realization among scientists that they are citizens, too, and thus have a stake in the policies that shape our lives. “Scientists wanted to be more outspoken and involved,” said Rikard.

NSPN is also providing training and information on strategic communication — things like how to talk to candidates about why they should be talking about science and technology or working with towns on issues that are specific to them, such as antibiotics in livestock. “There’s definitely a need to present objective findings,” said Percher, “But science is political, not partisan.” A scientist’s background can empower her or him to reach out with their expertise to engage with representatives and members of a community, said Percher.

Perhaps most important, NSPN leadership established an organizational structure with longevity in mind. They set up a constitution that limits leadership terms to two years and oversight of the board of directors. They established ways to get membership more involved through Slack, Twitter and monthly phone calls, for example. They also cultivated collaboration with resources that offer grants, internships provided networking opportunities, among other efforts. That continuity of communication and keeping members in the loop was crucial to NSPN founders. “People often have great ideas at a meeting, but then find it hard to keep in touch,” said Mayton. “Our job is to make [NSPN] strong,” said Mayton.

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Many scientists feel like facts and science are threatened under the current presidential administration.
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Katherine Lee