Opinion: After We March

How to become—and stay—involved in science policy 

Mar 16, 2017
Sheril Kirshenbaum

WIKIMEDIA, KRASSOTKINGiven instances in which the current administration has opposed facts—scientific or otherwise—and ongoing assaults on science, next month’s March for Science is a worthy first step toward getting those who care about research and American innovation engaged and ready to act. However, what’s most crucial will be what happens after the event.

Going forward, we must continue to find tangible ways to push for science’s inclusion in the policymaking process. There’s no single prescription to stay involved, so I’ll outline a few suggestions here and encourage readers get creative.

As a former congressional staffer, I know that concrete efforts, such as making the rounds on Capitol Hill in person to meet with representatives, really matter. If you can, take a few days to visit Senate and House offices to outline why the issues most important to you depend upon incorporating the best available science into legislation. When you meet with staffers, it’s vital that you don’t lose their attention by talking about p-values and statistics. Instead, remember to make clear arguments related to the economy, national security, geopolitical stability, and more. You have the power to make science matter to everyone listening, regardless of his or her background and expertise.

If you can’t get to Capitol Hill, you might visit representatives in your home district or dial their offices by phone. A constituent call generally has more weight than an email, although any form of contact to make your voice heard can make a difference.

In the past, I’ve reached out to Congressional staffers personally, volunteering to brief them on science-related topics on which they may not be up to speed. Remember, most office staff members do not have scientific backgrounds, so developing a relationship, building trust, and offering assistance at translating complex topics may be more welcome and appreciated than you anticipate. Also, take time to listen. When you understand your audience’s priorities, you can tell a more compelling narrative that will appeal to their interests and concerns.

Most importantly, it will be vital to grow public engagement on science-related issues beyond the scientific community. We need to keep finding forums to tell our stories in ways that resonate with those outside of the ivory towers of academia. For some, this might mean writing an opinion for a local or national newspaper. For others, it could be visiting a school, library, science café or TEDx-like conference to talk about the significance of your field of research.  Consider starting a group that meets in your own neighborhood to discuss how to make science a priority at the local level. Bilingual researchers can help by translating scientific information into languages other than English.

While we tend to focus our attention on what’s happening nationally, local politics often affect us most. Pay close attention to the science-related issues where you live. Maybe it’s lead in the drinking water, renewable energy initiatives, or food deserts. Look closely and you’ll find something that speaks to your expertise where you might contribute as a volunteer or an educator.

Finally, if you’re passionate for change, consider running for office at the city or state level. Don’t know where to begin? Look up one of the many groups seeking to train scientists to enter political races in 2018 and 2020. If you succeed, you’ll get to be involved directly in the decision-making process and ensure that science is central to how local governments tackle the issues that impact our health, environment, technology, and future.

If you can make it to the March for Science in Washington, DC—or a satellite march around the world—I encourage you to join in. A global show of solidarity is certainly a good start. But make sure your efforts don’t end there. Indeed, our movement is just getting started.

Sheril Kirshenbaum is the executive director of ScienceDebate, which is a partner of the March for Science.

See “Science Policy in 2017

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