Balancing Act: Finding A Place For Policy Engagement

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Academics are hearing the message loud and clear that society needs what they have to offer. In Nicholas Kristof’s recent provocative column, “Professors, We Need You!,” he admonishes professors not to “cloister yourselves like medieval monks,” but at the same time, acknowledges the real challenges posed by “a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.”

At COMPASS we often hear a sincere desire from scientists to make their work relevant in societal dialogues. But we also hear that the nature of many academic jobs often makes that engagement an add-on, rather than an integral part of their workload and process for review and promotion. As Chad wrote in his last post, scientists can learn how to make the most of the time they spend engaging, honing their skills to maximize the value they can bring to policy dialogues once they’ve begun. But the problem remains, how do you balance expectations of academic culture with the time it takes to make a valuable contribution in a policy space? [Read more…]

On Advocacy And Trust In Science

As I noted at the end of Monday’s post, I did not directly tackle the question of whether scientists’ advocacy has been shown to damage public trust in them (or their science). [Read more…]

Don’t Forget The Big Stuff: The Many Paths To Relevance

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One of the more infuriating comments I hear all too often about academic scientists is that they’re irrelevant. Floating about in lofty clouds of superfluous knowledge, they develop layer upon layer of jargon and complexity about something with tangential applicability (at best) to the real world. Admittedly, that’s not exactly what I’ve heard, but that’s the gist. And, while this caricature may hold slivers of truth, it surely doesn’t describe most of the scientists I know. They are driven to make a difference in the world. They want their work not only to be cutting edge, but to also be relevant.

Many scientists hold a deep-seated fear that no matter how much they desire to make a difference, their science just might not matter. We struggle, asking, “What good is a biogeochemist, compared to heroism like that of the first responders during the Boston bombings?” (Do take the time to read that blog post, please. It moved me. I even left my first-ever comment.)

Recently, while giving a talk about the professional path I’ve carved outside of academia to women in science here at Oregon State, I was reminded of my own quest for relevance as a grad student. Writing a concluding paragraph in a manuscript to justify the real-world application of my PhD research just wasn’t cutting it for me. In my role with COMPASS, my contribution to what matters is to focus squarely on the big picture, synthesizing ideas, seeding connections among scientists, and ultimately forging stronger connections between science and policy. This is my path to relevance. But it’s just one of many. [Read more…]

Budget Trade-offs: A Zero-Sum Game

Once the budget subcommittee has decided on their 302(b) sub-allocations, the battle for dollars becomes a zero-sum game.

PHOTO BY CHAD ENGLISH.

Should this dollar go to the NSF or to the FBI? It can’t go to both. You have to respect the people who make that decision.”

David Goldston of the Natural Resources Defense Council made this comment in front of a full room at the AAAS annual meeting last month (you can find paraphrases of this comment in the Twitter stream, Storified here). This is a very real choice, and it’s being set up right now through the federal budget process. There are thousands of people on Capitol Hill this week trying to make the case for their programs including probably hundreds of scientists and science supporters.

The seemingly endless budget and spending and sequestration noise coming out of D.C. can seem overwhelming and tedious. With sequestration threatening even the annual White House Easter egg roll, the budget rhetoric in D.C. remains heated and the gridlock seems complete. The President still hasn’t released a budget proposal for 2014 and now isn’t expected to until next month (despite my earlier prognostication). But for Congress, the budget process is marching on, and the tradeoff David described is getting set up right now.

[Read more…]