Skip to main content

Experts Share Many Ways to Promote Science’s Value

Visit the AAAS Force for Science website to follow the latest updates related to AAAS advocacy activities.

From left, Joanne Carney, Toby Smith, Josh Shiode, Sean Gallagher and Erin Heath offer guidance on how to communicate with policymakers at the April 21 CASE workshop. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

Members of the scientific community have multiple ways to communicate the value of science to policymakers and fellow citizens, according to experts who offered two training workshops at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. on April 21. The two workshops – Catalyzing Advocacy in Science & Engineering and the Communicating Science – were among the many special events  AAAS hosted leading up to the April 22 March for Science, including a webinar on advocating for science after the march, a talk by John Holdren, science adviser to former President Barack Obama, and a stand-up comedy show. The two workshops were held at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., and streamed live to viewers around the country.

“More and more scientists are interested in getting out of the lab and into the public square,” said Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “Thousands and thousands of scientists responded to the call to come out and say that science is useful, that it is powerful, that it is exciting and beautiful and that it needs to be defended.”

The CASE workshop provided an overview of the federal research and development budget – a critical source of funding for scientists in the U.S. – as well as details on how Congress functions and tips on how to get involved in science policy.

“It’s great that you are here for the march, but don’t let it end with the march,” said Toby Smith, vice president of policy at the Association of American Universities.

AAAS CEO Rush Holt addresses the April 21 CASE workshop. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal called for major cuts to non-defense R&D programs, including sharp reductions in basic science funding, across the government, said Josh Shiode, senior government relations officer at AAAS. Because so few members of Congress have scientific backgrounds, the scientific community can reach out to their elected representatives and in so doing play a key role in helping them understand the value of science as they craft legislation and set federal spending levels, said Sean Gallagher, senior government relations officer at AAAS.

Talk about your experiences “as a student, an innovator, as a teacher, as a science advocate,” said Gallagher. Don’t just rely on facts—tell stories, Smith advised.

There are a multitude of ways for scientists to get involved, whether over the short-term or long-term to advocate for science, said Erin Heath, associate director of the Office of Government Relations at AAAS. Scientists can learn about the policy positions of their representatives on issues that affect their work and ensure they are registered to vote. They can teach a course on science policy or participate in a fellowship that places students or professionals in policy roles, such as the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows program, Heath said.

The CASE workshop is part of ongoing efforts by AAAS to engage individuals in science and technology policy. Since 2014, AAAS has held an annual multi-day CASE workshop specifically for undergraduate and graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The two pre-march workshops were open to all interested individuals, regardless of career status or field.

“We felt that scientists of all ages who are participating in the March may appreciate a better understanding of the role that science plays in policy,” said Joanne Carney, director of government relations at AAAS.

For students at the multi-day CASE workshop, held this year on April 2-5, the in-depth sessions allowed them to delve into subjects like the role of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the future of science policy and provided a detailed description of how a bill becomes a law – a session that participant Drew Story, a Ph.D. student researching water quality at the University of California, Riverside’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, found “most impactful.”

Story said the workshop gave him just what he was seeking: an understanding of the language of policy, which will contribute to his efforts to have “an informed conversation with people about the role of science in policymaking” and gain the respect and trust of both scientists and policymakers, he said.

Crystal Grant, a Ph.D. student in genetics and molecular biology at Emory University in Atlanta, gained critical insight on how the federal budget works, which has helped her discuss the topic with colleagues concerned about the president’s proposed budget, she said. When her graduate student policy group held a letter-writing campaign shortly after the workshop, Grant “was able to use what I learned to give people tips on what to write,” she noted.

The students in the multi-day CASE workshop capped the training with visits to the Capitol Hill offices of their representatives, allowing them to talk about the importance of sustained funding for research or thank their representatives for supporting science.

“That was a chance to immediately put into practice what we had learned,” said Story, who met with representatives from his native Texas. Having “a sense of direction” thanks to the CASE workshop allowed Story to begin cultivating an ongoing relationship with his elected representatives, he said.

The workshop also gave participants a chance to connect with other students interested in science policy. For Grant, being among other scientists interested in pursuing careers in policy or communications rather than academic research – “students that all want to be the voice for scientists” – was a rewarding experience, she said.

Attendees at the April 21 Communicating Science workshop practice essential communication strategies. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

The multi-day CASE workshop holds a key session on strategies for communicating science, the subject of the second workshop held at AAAS on the eve of the March for Science.

Scientists tend to be trained in a particular style of communication that prioritizes sharing background and methods before revealing results, but to communicate with policymakers and the public to convey the value of science, a different approach is best, said Heath.

Scientists should lead with their conclusions, she said. “Give the bottom line and then tell people why they should care.” The hands-on workshop allowed attendees to split into small groups and practice the most critical communication strategies: setting specific goals for engagement, identifying and understanding their audience and developing three key messages – which should be “miniature, memorable and meaningful,” said Emily Cloyd, AAAS public engagement project director.

“Every time you meet a new audience, you have to think about how you can tell the story of science,” Cloyd said.

[Associated image: Participants in the April 21 Communicating Science workshop practice communication strategies in small groups. Stephen Waldron/AAAS]