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How to make an impact in science policy as a graduate student

With a lack of scientists in the Executive Branch and a growing national sentiment to include science in policymaking, now is better than ever to get involved with science policy as an early career researcher or graduate student.

It’s painstakingly clear that science continues to be an unimportant part of the Trump Administration; President Trump has yet to appoint a science advisor. Under President Trump, valuable committees like the Committee on STEM Education sit without members or even a working website, and the Environmental Protection Agency sits with a climate change denier at its head. The magic of the White House science fair is now gone, taking with it top science officials and an Obama administration dedicated to forwarding science. This has motivated hundreds of thousands to March for Science last year and drawn concern from scientists about the administration’s abandonment of scientific evidence.

This is where you come in—as a graduate student, it’s easy to get involved with issues you care about, such as gun control & climate change, to impact policy at the local, state, & national levels.

Credit: Stephen Melkisethian, Flickr, shared without modification. License

Find your issues

First, think about the issues that fire you up—most importantly, these should be areas you are comfortable advocating and discussing. Some hot, relevant political issues include climate change, gun control, healthcare, and STEM education, but anything relevant to public policy is worth exploring. Be sure to follow the science sections of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, as well as open-access publications the PLOS journals, to keep up with current science policy topics that can be easily shared with peers and policymakers—you might just discover interesting areas to apply your growing policy knowledge!

Get involved

Now it’s time to apply your knowledge by getting involved in your community. Community involvement can begin at various stages of the government, like workshops and toolkits offered nationally by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Explore the science policy opportunities from a society most relevant to your field, such as American Mathematical Society (AMS), American Statistical Association (ASA), or the American Institute of Physics (AIP), whom all do strong, impactful science policy and advocacy work.

There is also plenty of opportunity to volunteer with your local government officials. Reach out to your state or national representatives or to your city/town’s governing council to volunteer expertise both in your interest areas and in general scientific knowledge. Reaching out to your direct representative can seem daunting the first time, but remember that the job of these politicians is to represent you and your community, so this is a natural way to influence science & policy in your own backyard. Setting up brief meetings with your officials, or speaking at Town Halls, opens their eyes to environmental, public health, or other issues that you research and discuss daily.

Unsure of your current representatives? Find your US House representative here:

There are also a multitude of post-doctoral fellowships and other programs available to expand your science policy experience—The Genetics Society of America just compiled a searchable directory of fellowships here. Below is a short list of some of the most popular opportunities.

  • AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship: “Provides opportunities to outstanding scientists and engineers to learn first-hand about policymaking while contributing their knowledge and analytical skills to the federal policymaking process…in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government in Washington.” More info
  • California Council on Science and Technology Policy Fellows Program: Places fellows as staffers with California State Assembly and Senate offices, while training and mentoring scientists and engineers in the policymaking process. More info
  • Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program: “[P]rovides early career individuals with the opportunity to spend 12 weeks at the Academies in Washington, DC learning about science and technology policy and the role that scientists and engineers play in advising the nation.” More info
  • AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy for Science and Engineering (CASE) Workshop: “[O]rganized to educate graduate students who are interested in learning about the role of science in policy-making, to introduce them to the federal policy-making process, and to empower them with ways to become a voice for basic research throughout their careers.” More info

Talk to your university’s Office of Government/Federal Relations for opportunities at your institution, and use resources like the National Science Policy Group to explore science policy groups/initiatives in your area. Another good way to get involved in your community is to volunteer with grassroots organizations such as the Citizen’s Climate Lobby and, who hold advocacy events and workshops across the US. There are thousands of organizations like these, so once you pick your issues, you are a quick internet search away from getting involved with the grassroots in your community.

Share your knowledge

Credit: Jesper Sehested,

Write, write, write! Write op-eds for your local newspaper about upcoming legislation and hot issues, write blog posts about groups or issues in your community, write about your experiences as a graduate researcher. The more that you write and refine your ideas, the better your impact on your community will be. Also consider contributing to the PLOS ECR blog—from personal experience, it’s a perfect place to refine those writing and communication skills!

As I mentioned above, Twitter is an outstanding resource for keeping up with science policy, so build your following on Twitter and other social media to reach a wide audience (this can take years, so starting early helps!). Below, I have included some relevant accounts and people to follow to stay up to date on science policy:

  • @ESAL_us: “Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally – Dedicated to increasing local civic engagement by engineers & scientists. Nonpartisan, non-advocacy org.”
  • @ESEPCoalition: “An ad hoc alliance to empower scientists and engineers to effectively engage in the policy making process at all levels of government. #ESEP #SciPolJobs
  • @ScienceInsider: “Breaking news & analysis of science policy, politics, personalities, money & controversies. From @ScienceMagazine. Got a story? Send us a tip!”
  • @FYIscipolicy: “A science policy news service supported by the American Institute of Physics. RTs and links ≠ endorsement.”
  • @CCSTorg: “A nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established via the California State Legislature — making California’s policies stronger with science since 1988.”

But, always keep an eye on #scipol and #scipoljobs on Twitter for continuous updates. Following these accounts will keep you in the loop of current happenings in the #scipol world, and give you many more opportunities than I can list here.

It’s also worthwhile to spread these ideas and skills at your university or in your lab–science communication is an asset to every STEM researchers’ career, even if it’s not applied in policy-making. Workshops or seminars involving science policy are a great way to sharpen those skills, while getting more scientists thinking about policy. The toolkit I mentioned above is a great place to start, and there are plenty of resources you can find from both the AAAS and through Twitter to get those workshops off the ground.

Now, you are ready to start making a difference in science policy—find issues, get involved, and go make a difference. In fact, you can start making a difference this weekend by joining scientists across the world to March for Science on Saturday, April 14th—I hope to see you marching!


Featured Image by Shaun Farrell and shared without modification under the CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

References List

Chiacu, D. & Volcovici, V. (2017) EPA Chief Pruitt Refuses to Link CO2 and Global Warming. Scientific American.

Concerned Scientists, Union of. (2018) Abandoning Science Advice: One Year in, the Trump Administration Is Sidelining Science Advisory Committees (2018). Union of Concerned Scientists.

Gregory, T. (2018) Give Me Shelter: US national parks are vital for birds in face of climate change. PLOS Research News.

Kassabian, S. (2016) White House honors exceptional student scientists in sixth and final Science Fair. PLOS Sci-Ed Blog.

Milman, O. (2017) March for Science puts Earth Day focus on global opposition to Trump. The Guardian.

Organ, J. (2018) Opinion: We’re at War for Science Literacy, Not Against Faith. PLOS SciComm Blog.

Organ, J. & Hoffmann-Longtin, K. (2018) Using Evidence to Restructure Healthcare: Lessons for US Lawmakers from the UK. PLOS SciComm Blog.

Waldman, S. (2018) Trump’s Science Advisor, Age 31, Has a Political Science Degree. Scientific American.

Wright, M. (2016) A scientist’s attempt to help: Round-up of open access blogs and journal articles on gun violence. PLOS ECR Community.


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