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Supporting the next generation of scientists is vital for advancing the research enterprise and maintaining our nation’s economic competitiveness in science and technology. Achieving this goal requires academic culture to change in ways that make education, mentoring and professional development in science policy for scientists, including early-career scientists, integral to their academic training with the goal of improving society.
Moving the needle on educating academic researchers and students on effective ways to translate their scientific findings into societal impact requires extensive training in science policy across colleges and universities. This type of education could occur in several formats, ranging from workshops, webinars and courses, all the way to more extensive certificate programs and degrees in science policy. Regardless of format, this type of training is still relatively scarce in higher education institutions across the country.
As a result, many talented young researchers are unable to meaningfully engage in the policy-making process due to the lack of exposure to such opportunities. Furthermore, another consequence is that a large portion of future leaders in science and technology is placed at a disadvantage for gaining skills necessary for and pursuing careers in science policy.
Engagement at the state level can provide the next generation of scientists with several opportunities in policy making that may open doors for them to participate in societal change, including through developing necessary skills such as publishing on civic science and policy topics and engaging in experiential opportunities by informing state and local representatives and their staff about issues of importance to their constituents. In that manner, state-level policy engagement can lead to impactful local change by scientists in several areas, including early-career scientists, participating in science policy opportunities where they live. In many cases, those efforts complement already existing federal programs.
Several examples exist where the engagement of scientists in state-level policy making has led to benefits for their own careers while enabling them to achieve local impact. The varied career paths of early-career scientists who transitioned into science policy also show the many different ways that exist to be involved in making policy. Whereas this is not a comprehensive list, a few such examples are below through means that may be of interest to readers.
- Internship: Chris Tokita, now a data scientist based in Los Angeles, interned for a state representative while pursuing his Ph.D. in computational ecology at Princeton University. The experience gave him a different perspective on government than the federal policy work he had previously done, and he continues to use that insight as he remains active in policy and advocacy at the state and local level through volunteer work.
- Academy:Yasmeen Hussain obtained her Ph.D. in Biology from University of Washington, worked in science policy at the federal level including through a science policy fellowship. She then worked as a program officer at the Washington State Academy of Sciences where she connected scientists with policy makers and other stakeholders at the local level.
- Fellowship: Andrew George co-led the development of the North Carolina STEM Policy Fellowship for graduate students, which led to his involvement with Sigma Xi as part of the Civic Science Fellowship program supported by the Rita Allen Foundation.
- Running for office: Tepring Piquado, who earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience, was previously a fellow with the California Council on Science and Technology and later ran for public office which benefitted her career in many ways.
At present, the landscape of state-level opportunities that early-career scientists can also participate in is expanding considerably. Innovative tools are necessary to highlight this important aspect of developing future policy leaders across the country, including existing opportunities and gaps that need to be filled. To this end, later this year, Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society, plans to launch a digital platform to help facilitate state-level policy engagement and provide a wide spread of much-needed science policy training opportunities and resources under one umbrella. The platform will connect a number of policy players—including scientific organizations, nonprofits and scientific societies and others—and provide users with connections and opportunities in the field by showcasing policy-engaged organizations, highlighting training opportunities, and ultimately empowering individuals from diverse backgrounds to enact policy change at the state and local level.
More specifically, the platform aims to:
- Foster effective, sustainable collaborations between scientists and policy makers to address the needs of communities in North Carolina and other states in a number of science policy areas;
- Connect scientists with policy engagement opportunities, including full-time and volunteer positions within North Carolina and beyond;
- Help scientists understand the state-level policy process, and where and how they can participate, such as through engaging in state government offices or in the executive branch as a science adviser;
- Introduce scientists to organizations and institutions that offer the proper training for the type of policy work they wish to pursue; and
- Create a business model that enables partnerships with scientific organizations, academic institutions, government agencies and private businesses to make their resources and tools visible and accessible through the platform.
The higher education community can take advantage of tools such as the Sigma Xi platform to help academic researchers across the country, including early-career scientists, discover science policy training opportunities and crowdsourced case studies for gaining insights into the policy process across different branches of government. Whether or not they want to remain in academic research while learning about the policy-making process or make the transition into a full-time science policy career, the platform will provide a helpful avenue for scientists to enhance their own education and training in science policy and move toward a successful career in the field if desired. Regardless, it will enable them to make meaningful change in policy where they live, which can have a lasting positive impact on our society.
More broadly, university administrators and research leadership within higher education should incorporate science policy training into the curriculum at all levels, including for graduate students. This includes exposure to state-level policy training in order to enable the next generation of scientists to better connect science and society. Engaging in educational opportunities through science policy courses and participating in experiential opportunities where they live can lead to many opportunities in the field for students and trainees interested in this career path.