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Bringing Scientific Evidence to Meet Local Policy Challenges, a Town Hall at the AAAS Annual Meeting

EPI Center Town Hall Panel
Town Hall panelists include (from left to right): Dr. Michael D. Fernandez, Shane Schoeller, Anna Hui, Michael Lee, and Dr. Jamie DeWitt

At the AAAS annual meeting in Seattle, local and state officials gathered onstage with scientists to discuss how scientists can help government officials access the scientific evidence they need to make more informed decisions. The panelists described the genesis of new initiatives in Missouri and North Carolina to assist state legislators with scientific expertise and offered advice on how to get involved locally.

Three models for engagement were discussed: direct engagement of local officials, state science and technology fellowships, and a policy ‘collaboratory’ between the North Carolina state legislature and local universities that funds research.

Michael D. Fernandez, director of the AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues (EPI Center), moderated the town hall discussion, asking how producers (scientists), providers (science policy, boundary spanning organizations), and users of scientific evidence (elected officials and agency staff) can work together more effectively.

Direct Engagement of Officials on Election Security

An initiative from AAAS to deliver clear, concise, and actionable evidence to decision-makers, the EPI Center launched a project in 2019 to assist local election officials with information about election security and technology. Steve Newell, project director for the election security effort, described the challenges of reaching out to hundreds of local election officials to understand their concerns and share recommendations from a 2018 NASEM report, Securing the Vote.

Shane Schoeller, County Clerk of Greene County, Missouri, and former speaker pro tem of the Missouri House of Representatives, described how as an election official, “one of the challenges I see is that there are multiple streams of information in terms of being prepared when it comes to election security.”

Schoeller serves on the Advisory Board of the federal Election Assistance Commission. In 2019, he conducted a pilot risk-limiting audit, a statistically-sound method of determining whether the outcome of the election is accurate with a high level of confidence. Missouri is one of a handful of states to pilot this new type of audit pioneered by statisticians. Schoeller described being invited to watch a pilot audit in Michigan after meeting several scientific experts at a Congressional briefing. He said, “There’s a real interest on my part because, in elections, the most important thing we have right now in terms of public confidence is that we are open and transparent.”

“We need to be accountable,” he continued, “but right now we do fixed-percentage audits and there is really no scientific evidence or method behind it. When I learned about the risk limiting audit, that is when I began to see that there is a path forward that would give the public greater confidence that when we tell you, ‘we have certified this election’ the public can have confidence that the election was certified to exactly how the voters voted.”

The EPI Center continues to reach out to election officials across the United States to share scientific evidence on voting machines, risk-limiting audits and the insecurity of online voting apps, and to connect them with scientific experts who are willing to help.

State Science Policy Fellowships

Anna Hui, Director of the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, served as the Associate Deputy Secretary of Labor in President George W. Bush’s Administration and ran the Illinois Department of Labor. Hui serves on the advisory board of the MOST Policy Initiative, a new program that places scientific fellows in state legislature committees and executive branch offices.

“We're working with the MOST Policy Initiative to talk about how can we up our game with our state resources and make sure that we are not only bringing in people who are technically gifted and educated to work with us, but also make sure state employees understand the value of data,” she said.

“We are like the Fort Knox of data, we are sitting on all this money, all this currency.” She explained the difficulty government employees have had analyzing data from various sources, “They are all different currencies and they can't be converted to actually work with each other so you can't really pull the information in a way that makes logical connections and helps broader policy and programs.”

“It's been so inspiring to work with officials like Director Hui,” said Rachel Owen, co-founder of MOST. “They have been so encouraging and talk about how government can use the data that they are collecting to make better policies to better serve the people of Missouri.”

Dr. Owen founded MOST in 2016 with two other Ph.D. students at the University of Missouri. “We were all interested in policy as researchers,” she said, “but we were told that in order to do policy, we had to go to Washington, D.C.”

“We spent a lot of time talking with our elected officials and agency officials, and we found that there is this huge need for this information,” she said. “We have our first class of fellows that we're hiring in Missouri right now and one of them will be placed working with Director Hui in the Missouri Department of Labor.”

Director Hui described the difficulty of implementing new state regulations as an opportunity for collaboration with scientists. “As an implementer, right now our biggest challenge oftentimes is the legislature thinks they have made a fix to a program or policy issue but then we do not have the resources or the flexibility to actually implement… So that is where, again, you have to start relying on this broader network of universities and bringing in fellows or working with other national organizations.”

A number of people from other state science and fellowship programs attended and participated in the discussion including the California Council on Science and Technology, Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering, Idaho Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, and the Commonwealth of Virginia Engineering & Science Fellowship.­ Many state fellowships are modeled after the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program that places scientists and engineers in federal agencies and Congressional offices.

A State Policy Collaboratory Funds Science

A unique science policy initiative, the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory was established in 2016 by the North Carolina General Assembly to fund and disseminate environmental research for practical use by state and local government. As a state senator in North Carolina, Michael Lee was active in establishing the Collaboratory and writing the Water Safety Act. The Collaboratory funded statewide drinking water monitoring and created the North Carolina Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Testing (PFAST) Network after high levels of PFAS were detected in drinking water.

“The Collaboratory is the conduit by which we can respond to emerging issues very, very quickly by providing money and appropriations directly to the Collaboratory with a very specific mission,” Lee said.To date the Collaboratory has awarded more than $18 million in research grants across the state of North Carolina.

Dr. Jamie DeWitt, Associate Professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology of the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, received funding from the Collaboratory for PFAS monitoring and research.

“I think for most of us, that connection between what we do in the lab and who is impacted by what we do can be a little bit fuzzy,” she said. “That fuzziness disappeared when I became engaged with the Collaboratory because now I know the faces behind the bill… I know that faces of the community members who are depending on me to produce scientific evidence so that people like Mr. Lee can make decisions to protect their health and to protect the environment.”

“My paradigm shifted from one of, ‘I'm interested in the science,’ to -- for lack of a better phrase – ‘I am responsible for the health of people in my state.’ And honestly as a scientist who considers herself a little bit nerdy and introverted, it is pretty terrifying. I have had to think a little more carefully about how I speak about science. I realized that I have to shift a little bit in terms of how I speak because these people are drinking water contaminated with PFAS. That's a good thing.”

Watch: EPI Center communications director Kathryn McGrath interviews Director Anna Hui and Dr. Jamie DeWitt following the town hall discussion.


Kathryn McGrath

Communications Director, AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues