Passion for Water Balloon Physics Makes Way for Evidence-Based Policymaking

As a scientist or engineer, have you ever felt frustrated by an evidence-based finding or idea failing to make an impact on public policy? Dan Pomeroy, 2013-14 Congressional Fellow sponsored by the American Geophysical Union, has too. But as the first manager of MIT’s new International Policy Lab (IPL), he is in a good position to disrupt an all too familiar cycle.

“Policymakers are awash in a sea of information, making it difficult to determine what is most relevant and useful. As a result, the ideas that make their way into public policy often depend more on the resources that are invested in lobbying and publicity rather than the validity of the ideas themselves,” said Pomeroy. “This is in stark contrast to academia, where a thorough review process requires ideas to stand on their own merit and ensures that only the best rise to the top.”

Dan Pomeroy with Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) at a hearing on ISIL (September 14, 2014).

The IPL identifies policy-relevant research at MIT, helps the researcher produce materials for policy audiences such as briefings and articles, and sets up meetings with the decision-makers who are most likely to initiate action based on the research findings. In the months since its inception, the office has developed a portfolio of projects supporting researchers working on issues including climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, genetic modification technologies, and international border control.

Next up for Pomeroy: forging relationships between faculty and relevant policymakers. “Faculty care about the implications of their work, but often cannot take time from their research to determine who to connect with in the policy world and how to communicate with them effectively.”

Back in high school, a physics teacher brought home the lesson for Pomeroy that science improves life. He realized that physics could determine where a water balloon fired from his slingshot would land. He has been a passionate science fan ever since, going on to obtain a PhD working at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics experiment. “During this time, I also realized the importance of civic engagement. I organized students to secure Massachusetts’s place as the first state in the nation to allow equal marriage rights to same-sex couples. Later, I took a leave of absence from my graduate program to run campaign offices before the 2008 elections.”

As someone trying to find a way to connect my scientific background with civic engagement I can still remember the exact moment I learned about the AAAS fellowship. I was sitting in the back of a lecture hall at a physics conference when I received an email from my advisor with an ad for the program. As I read it, I knew instantly that it was what I wanted to do. During the interview process when I was asked why I wanted to do the fellowship, I stated clearly that my goal was to spend time working inside the public policy world and eventually use what I learned to impact policy from the outside.

During his time in Washington, Pomeroy identified three barriers to the process of science informing policy. “First, scientists lack the resources to pay for the extensive lobbying and public relations campaigns that have significant impact on public policy. Second, academia places such a priority on publishing peer-reviewed research that it does not provide incentive for faculty to invest time in outreach to policymakers. Finally, there are fundamental differences in the way academics and policymakers communicate.”

Pomeroy credits the STPF program with strengthening a number of skillsets that are critical to his current work, including the ability to manage diverse projects with tight deadlines and to better communicate technical information to general audiences.

“The most important benefit of being a fellow is the incredible network. I am constantly surprised by how easy it is to find fellows working on all kinds of policy issues and even more surprised by how willing they are to take time out of their schedules to help me get up to speed on them. I am extremely grateful to be part of this amazing community of people who truly care about scientists engaging with and informing public policy.”