‘How Does A Scientist Get Involved In Science Policy?’

4 Aug

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?



Hi Matthew,

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.

Good luck!


This is the mission statement of sciencedebate.org and a memorable line from Obama’s inaugural address.

4 Responses to “‘How Does A Scientist Get Involved In Science Policy?’”

  1. Philip H August 4, 2011 at 11:30 am #

    I’d add that Matthew, and all like him, also need to tackle the institutional barrier to political work within his university. All the things you mention do him no good if the senior faculty won’t, at least, get out of his way; rather, if they seek to impede him, or endanger his tenure progression because he works in political circles, he’s likely to drop his political interest in favor of securing tenure, and then will have to deal with grant fund, teaching, etc which will leave little time for all the good things you advocate.

    • Sheril Kirshenbaum August 4, 2011 at 11:36 am #

      That’s a very good point Philip. Yes, it can be dangerous to be noticed for activities outside of your ‘discipline’ before getting tenure, although that varies tremendously among universities. However, I sense that things are changing overall, as academia is recognizing the value in faculty engagement with broader communities.

  2. Austin L August 4, 2011 at 12:49 pm #

    I’ve had a lot of success by getting involved in local politics. I’m the treasurer for a state campaign, and the candidate I’m working for has appreciated my input on science topics.

    Ask the politician or candidate a question about a relevant science topic (there’s always a relevant science topic). Local politicians in particular don’t often get those kinds of questions, and it’s an easy way to start a discussion and to highlight your expertise.

  3. Hamid Ghanadan September 10, 2011 at 11:45 pm #

    Sheryl- Thank you for this excellent post. One great way that scientists can be involved in policy is through the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). Do you have any experience with this organization?

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