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Science & Policy: Perspectives from the American Meteorological Society Summer Policy Colloquium

This June I was fortunate to be selected to spend two weeks in Washington, D.C. at the American Meteorological Society’s Summer Policy Colloquium (AMS SPC). The colloquium was an opportunity for participants to immerse themselves in science policy through discussions with working professionals and hands-on exercises. The goal of the program is to arm scientists with expertise in the policy process and to help the scientific community engage with decision makers. I think it’s important for scientists to have a seat at the table when policy decisions are made to ensure available scientific knowledge is used to inform policy. I had the opportunity to learn about policy basics and how decisions are made, talk with federal officials and congressional staff about the legislative process, and understand current science and policy issues. Daily topics included science diplomacy, public-private partnerships, perspectives on executive leadership, understanding science policy in the Arctic, and science advocacy.

Approximately 600 scientists have gone through this program over the past 18 years. The 35 participants of the colloquium this year included graduate students, faculty, and professionals from NOAA and the National Weather Service. The program provided me with the opportunity to not only engage with and understand the policy process but create unique professional connections. My cohort and I were energized by the fifty experts who spoke about the importance of science in the policy process to address the difficult questions facing society. Some of the speakers who provided interesting perspectives about science policy included Senator Whitehouse from Rhode Island, the acting Deputy Director for USGS Dr. David Applegate, the Assistant Director for Geosciences at NSF Dr. William Easterling, and the former Assistant Director for Federal R&D at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Kei Koizumi.

AMS Summer Policy Group

The 2018 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium participants during one of the days we met with members of Congress and Congressional staff members.

In addition to the informative speakers, we went through a legislative exercise where we roleplayed as a current senator in U.S. Congress with the task of marking up and voting on legislation relevant to the Earth science community (Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2017 and the Weather Research Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017). Our tasks were to understand the bills, understand the political views of the Senator and office we represented, develop our own amendments to the bills, and negotiate with other Senators to try and get our amendment passed. I now understand the difficulties associated with passing legislation in Congress as there are many factors, such as constituency base and relationships with other Senators to consider in such an exercise.

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Participants of the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium during the legislative exercise negotiating legislation and developing amendments to the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2017 and the Weather Research Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017.

Lessons Learned

Throughout this experience I learned the value that science plays in society and how important it is for science and scientists to be engaged in the policy process. Did you know less than 3% of politicians in Congress have any background in science or engineering?! Currently, there is only one PhD scientist in Congress, Dr. Bill Foster from Illinois. However, recently there has been growing interest by early career scientists to engage in the policy process, such as through the National Science Policy Network (NSPN). There is growing understanding that scientific expertise, critical thinking skills, and data-driven decision making are vital skills for effective policy as shown by the large number of scientists running for office in 2018. Beyond being a politician, there are lots of ways for scientists to get involved with policy. As I learned through my time in DC, scientists interested in policy usually take two different, but complementary, roles- the advocate and the analyst. The advocate involves inspiring others to understand the importance of science and its role in society. The analyst, similar to an academic researcher, solves problems and analyzes data to produce reports that can inform policy. For example, the non-Partisan Congressional Research Service (more about this in my next blog) provides research and policy analysis to congressional committees and members of Congress, regardless of political party.

As scientists, engaging effectively in the policy process either on the local, state, or federal level can be difficult. As Toby Smith, the author of Beyond Sputnik discussed at the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, there is a cultural divide between scientists and politicians which can make it difficult for scientists to engage in the policy process (as illustrated in the table below).

Scientists

Politicians

Numbers

Words
Quantitative

Qualitative

Objective

Subjective
Specialist

Generalists

Hate to make promises

Love to make promises

Long-term

Short-term

Money=research

Money=reelection

Below are some important themes and points I learned throughout my experience at the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. Each of these topics are complex and worthy of their own blog post.

  • Science has no political party
  • There is an important distinction between science for policy and policy for science
  • What politicians say and believe about science frustratingly are sometimes two different things
  • Tell a story with your science that is factual, local, and practical
  • Communication skills are key
  • Be transparent and flexible
  • Translating complex information is an important skill to have
  • Public and private partnerships are essential to science
  • It’s really important to understand the federal budget process
  • Relationship building is vital along with trust and transparency
  • All politics is local, personal, and the language you use matters
  • Scientists need to help policy makers in their efforts to stay informed of advances in science, and the implications of emerging findings for policy formulation
  • We need to build opportunities and platforms that empower scientists and policymakers to collaborate

Although scientists can be wary and unsure about how to engage with policy, there are lots of resources available to help, including the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. For anyone interested in getting involved with science policy, I highly recommend looking into various Science & Technology Policy Fellowships. Almost all of our speakers at the Colloquium went through the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, and or some form of a Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. Below are just a few resources that I have discovered:

Be sure to stay tuned for my next blog in this series about Science and Technology Fellowships and careers in the Federal Government!

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A brunch was held for all of the 2018 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium participants.

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The 2018 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium participants navigating the DC metro system.

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