I always enjoy receiving email from readers and–with Matthew’s permission–I’m answering his question publicly because the subject matters tremendously:
I am a new Assistant Professor at [a large public university] studying Emerging Infectious Diseases. The lab is doing well now and I have a little time to think about other things now and again. I have always wanted to be involved with science policy in DC and wanted to know if you could point me in the right direction to get started? Any tips to getting involved on Capital Hill with providing information to Congressman or deciders on science funding, direction of research etc?
You’ve highlighted an enormous problem. In politics, science is treated as special interest group yet it’s central to every single major 21st century challenge: Energy, human health, climate change, ocean acidification, national security, and on and on. We critically need more scientists engaging in policy discussions, but the traditional academic system is set up to discourage it. As we train for careers in science as graduate students, politics doesn’t seem like a viable trajectory. Unfortunately, it comes with the label of “non-traditional alternative” which likely deters many. And early-career scientists don’t usually have the time to explore the possibility as they navigate through the perilous ‘publish or perish’ years.
But unless the science community gets more engaged telling our own stories both on and off Capitol Hill, special interest groups will do it for us–and we won’t like the result. Fortunately, there are a myriad of ways to stay active in policy and have influence and I sincerely hope that more scientists consider them. After all, there are very few tenure track jobs waiting for the ever-growing number of newly minted PhD’s who have the expertise make necessary contributions beyond the ivory towers. (You’ll find a much longer discussion of this in Chapter 10 of Unscientific America).
As for how to get involved, there are unlimited possibilities.. You can start at the local level where you live, whether it’s writing OpEds, blogging, or offering to serve as a science advisor to a local politician (you’d be surprised how much they need and appreciate this). You may also consider going over the extensive list of Policy Fellowships for Scientists and Engineers (updated regularly and linked in the sidebar) to see if any match your background and interests. You can get active in terrific groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists or the Scientists and Engineers for America who regularly make the rounds on Capitol Hill. Or join ScienceDebate.org, working to encourage candidates to discuss science issues along the campaign trail. And don’t forget that as a constituent, you can always call, email, or visit your member’s office to share insight or offer your perspective. They represent us, so they need to hear from us!
I hope that you dive in and join the effort to restore science to it’s rightful place* in politics.
* This is the mission statement of sciencedebate.org and a memorable line from Obama’s inaugural address.