Lessons From The Policy Trenches

Sometimes, students are the best teachers. I think this is particularly true when you’re pushing yourself beyond the boundaries of hard facts or scholarship into the realm of practice. Those who are just entering the world of policy are often more articulate about the experience than those of us who make our home there. I’m excited to highlight a great example of this, Karen Lips, a Leopold Leadership fellow who studies salamanders like lungless sallys, frogs and other (arguably) adorable amphibians. Karen wanted to help protect the animals she studies from invasive pathogens that reach wild populations via animal imports. Earlier this year we highlighted a “get-your-feet-wet” training that COMPASS did for Leopold fellows who felt they had something to offer to policy but were unsure how to get started. Karen participated in that training with fantastic results; not only has she positioned herself as a resource for policymakers working in this area, she’s enlisted her graduate students in a project that helps directly answer questions decision-makers face.

Like this camouflaged plethodontidae, the entry into a policy dialogue is easy to spot when you know what you're looking for. Image from Minette Layne on Flickr.

Like this camouflaged lungless salamander, the entry into a policy dialogue is easy to spot when you know what you’re looking for.
Image from Minette Layne on Flickr.

Karen has gone from feeling “in-the-dark” to feeling like she’s plugged into the right conversations to make a difference. As she demonstrates at the beginning of her post, the policy world can seem opaque, but it’s inhabited by people like you and me.  The key is to orient to the landscape – a task for which boundary organizations like COMPASS can be valuable resources. Once you understand the landscape you can identify the decision points that impact policy. If you know who is making decisions, and what decisions they are making, you can address their needs. If you can present information and insight that is directly applicable to their work, policymakers are much more likely to take note. The challenge comes in finding the initial entry point for a policy conversation: as a scientist, how do you get to policymakers? Karen Lips is a great example of how you can harness your network to get this done.

You may not know much about the policy area you want to pursue, but chances are that you know someone who does (or know someone who knows someone who does – it’s like the Kevin Bacon game for policy wonks). We helped Karen and her Leopold Fellow colleagues hone their questions about the policy process and think about folks they were connected to who might have the answers. We helped them figure out how to use their extended network to identify decision points and make sense of how their science can illuminate the conversation. It was inspiring to watch all the Leopold Fellows use their networks, find their entry points, and begin to position themselves as resources for policymakers.

Karen shares her lessons learned from her recent foray into the world of policy on the Leopold Leadership 3.0 blog here. If you haven’t seen the blog already, it’s a great resource for first hand accounts of scientist engagement, leadership and more. If you have your own story (and lessons learned) we’d love to hear from you.}