Empower With Evidence – the theme of the 2022 AAAS Annual Meeting – aimed to inspire sessions that illustrate the transformative power of evidence-based discoveries and that address the challenges of rebuilding the public trust in science. To maintain the highest level of pandemic safety, the meeting switched to an online format. Hundreds of sessions attracted attendees from around the world. And as in years past, current and alumni Science & Technology Policy Fellows (STPF) organized and participated in sessions that touched on broad-ranging facets of science and policy.
Packing a lot into a little time, Mentoring in a Virtual Space: Best Practices and Ways to Promote DEI illuminated a vital way to ensure a vibrant science enterprise. Participants led by STPF fellow Utibe Bickham-Wright (2020-22 fellow at the National Science Foundation) discussed how effective mentoring can influence a student's decision to pursue a career in STEM. Panelists shared personal experiences as well as guidelines for students seeking mentors and STEM professionals looking for ways to impact the next generation. Brandy Huderson (2019-21 fellow at the National Science Foundation) said that mentors are particularly important among those in underrepresented groups. In her experience, the mentor relationship has changed over time. “We’re in a new day for mentoring relationships. You had seasoned faculty members as members in the past, but there’s been a shift. Now, mentors are also learning from their mentees: it’s a bi-directional relationship.”
Asked why they mentor, panelists spoke of giving back to their communities. "I can't expect change to happen…if I'm not actively participating – this is one of the ways I participate," said Huderson. Another panelist said mentoring relationships is beneficial to one’s mental wellness and urged mentees and mentors to “take a moment to reflect on the things you need.”
Social issues ranging from climate impacts to COVID-19 have put the role of science in state and local decision-making in the spotlight, but scientists and engineers are often missing from action at the local level. Injecting Science into Local Decision-making featured scientists and engineers at various career stages who have used their expertise to engage in community issues. Participants were also provided with tools to develop their own local engagement plans. “Policy can’t be a drive by, drop in thing. It takes time to make a difference. It’s a commitment of hearts and it’s a long-haul effort,” said Arti Garg, (2009-10 Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow sponsored by the American Physical Society) of Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally.
Sharing everything from the conflicted feelings you get with moving from academia to policy, to the complexities of some salary arrangements, Professors ConSandra McNeil (2018-20 fellow at the National Science Foundation) and Fernando Bruno (2021-22 fellow at the National Institutes of Health) were candid with questions from the audience at “Faculty Make for Excellent Science Policy Fellows.” This session dispelled any assumption that STPF fellows are all early career professionals and delved into the considerable benefits of stepping away from academia for a year to gets hands-on policy experience. “Please apply,” urged Dr. McNeil. “Faculty DO make for great fellows.”
Gillian Bowser (2011-2012 fellow at the Department of State) led a conversation on DEI and engaging citizens in science. Panelists discussed the importance of using citizen science to understand urban communities and recognizing the barriers between academia and the application of data in those communities. Many project descriptions are written like “travel magazines,” centering around privileged interest. To help close the gap between researchers and participants, it’s important to be intentional with the process, have the resources to sustain the project, and be sure to share outcomes with participants and their communities. With better communication and reduced barriers to entry, citizen science help promote understanding among communities and help solve social justice problems in ways that are inclusive.
Holly Mayton (Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow sponsored by AIP) kept busy in two sessions. In one, she highlighted resources from the National Science Policy Network, Journal of Science Policy & Governance, and Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally for early career STEM professionals to build skills, grow professional networks, and make an impact in science policy. In another, she provided participants an opportunity to “expand their toolset for incorporating equity, ethics, and inclusivity into future science policy projects, memos, research, and more,” she said. “Science and policy do not exist in a vacuum, and it is not enough to base policy decisions on scientific evidence and data alone.”
Speakers from the AAAS Office of Government Relations and Rebecca Aicher (2011-13 fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency) representing the AAAS EPI Center taught participants skills to help them engage with policymakers on complicated scientific issues. “Bringing policy-relevant science to decision-makers in an engaging and meaningful way is core to my mission as a scientist,” commented Aicher.
Katherine Himes (2011-13 fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development and 2013-15 STPF Overseas Fellow) spoke about Empowering Non-coastal States to Develop Climate Change Resilience Policies. In particular, she addressed how states “can work on climate change assessments in a nonpolarizing, nonpartisan, sometimes creative way.” The session was a natural step after her experience leading the Idaho Climate-Economy Impacts Assessment.
A virtual mixer hosted by STPF and presided over by STPF Director Rashada Alexander (2009-11 fellow at National Institutes of Health) added a different layer of engagement to the meeting and brought hundreds of people engaged at the intersection of science and policy together to connect. AAAS CEO Emeritus Rush Holt (1982-83 Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow sponsored by the American Physical Society) stopped by! It was a memorable time for all.
Thanks to eye-opening conversation, members of the Annual Meeting community of scientists, educators, policymakers, and journalists left empowered with evidence, with broader horizons, and new energy to pursue science and do the work of rebuilding public trust in science.