Guest Blog Post: Jennifer Apell

3/28/2017

The AAAS Annual Meeting is a great event if you’re a scientist interested in policy. It’s also a great event if you’re not.

After the daily sessions are concluded, the plenary talks begins. The plenary talk is open to the public and targeted at broad (scientific) audiences. For example, the second plenary was given by Dr. May Berenbaum, who is a professor of entomology, on the current scientific understanding of the causes of colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD is the disorder that is currently endangering North America’s bee population and consequently the agriculture industry. Her talk highlighted the importance of global collaboration in order to progress the science, but it also highlighted how scientific inventions from the 19th century and policy decisions from the early 20th century can impact the problems we are facing today. As a scientist, I find listening to a tale of scientific breakthroughs and failures is better than any movie.

Since the AAAS Meeting draws scientist from near and far, there is always an international reception where you can mingle and meet all sorts of scientists (and journalists and spouses). This year’s reception was held at the Skywalk in the Prudential Tower. While enjoying the view, I was asked about how you would spell coffee using none of the original letters. There was no right answer; this was just one of Dr. Martin Apple’s go-to icebreakers. I later learned that Dr. Apple conducted some of the pioneering work on genetic engineering, but his scientific accomplishments still only placed second with his family taking first hands down.

So even if you’re not that into policy, the AAAS Meeting offers some unique experiences for a graduate student and might expose you to some new perspectives. And maybe, at the end, you might be one of those scientists who has an interest in the role policy plays in science.

If My Mechanic Was Peer-Reviewed

3/13/2017

Written by Michael Davidson

Science is heavily polarized and the process of evaluating science is murky for non-scientists. That is my main take-away of the AAAS conference for scientists and science-educators last week. As Dan Kahan suggests, people of all political affiliations will (subconsciously) fit empirical observations into arguments in support of their beliefs through a process called “motivated reasoning”. Without understanding the scientific process, as Naomi Oreskes writes, it is possible for even intelligent and respected people to be duped, as in Edward Murrow giving equal weight in broadcasts to both scientists and tobacco industry-funded lobbyists. For people without degrees in science, Dietrem Scheufele noted in his talk (1:08), science is often presented as cut and dry without developing a competency in understanding how to identify good and bad science. There are many good efforts to educate about the real-world benefits of science, but maybe what these scholars are pointing to is the need to start from where the audience is in explaining the scientific method. So, in fitting with this theme, I ask you to imagine if my bike mechanic was peer reviewed.

This bike screeches for unknown reasons.

This bike screeches for unknown reasons.

It’s a cold morning, and plunging outside I notice a layer of snow has formed on my bicycle. It hasn’t been moved in a couple weeks while I was away. I give it a cursory brush, eager to jump on and get going. I push off – a gust of frigid air blows over my face – and as I make contact with the pedal, I hear it.

Screeech!

The piercing noise fills my quiet street. Another stroke and – Screeech! The sound belongs in a creepy old house, like opening a heavy wooden door unmoved in years. Screech, screech, screech. I make my way down the street. The noise varies as I go up and down hills. People cast a sideways look as I pass. On some days, I hear it; and others I don’t.

The sound is annoying but even worse is taking it into the bike shop to get it fixed. A number of potential fixes are proposed – re-oil the chain, tighten some bolts, replace the bottom bracket that connects the pedal to the frame, etc. These options fail. I take it into another shop without luck. Eventually with more parts ordered it may be fixed – at a high price tag – but I would not know which combination of conditions caused it or how to prevent something similar from happening again.

But, I wonder aloud, What if my mechanic did peer review?

I imagine my bike mechanic as a scientist designing an experiment to determine the cause of the screeches. A number of variables could be the culprit: the cold day; several days idling; frost… We recreate the same conditions over a week, modifying each variable one at a time, and measuring the change in noise. It may be diminished, change pitch, or go away altogether. With enough observations, we have an inspiration that combines our set of variables into a mechanistic explanation of screeching in bikes.

But, we don’t stop there. We write this up and send to the Journal of Transportation Annoyances, where other mechanic-scientists from around the country are invited to review the paper. Maybe one in warm southern Florida has heard similar noises and raises questions about the factor of cold mornings. Another asks how we accounted for different morning humidity over the course of the experiment. How can we be sure, yet another reviewer asks, that our explanation holds for much larger and smaller bikes?

Over the review period, which could take six months or longer, we may expand the scope of the experiments, address other questions in the screeches literature, and measure our certainty in the findings against other random changes from day to day. We send back responses to all the reviewer comments and only if they are satisfied, a revised version is published. This peer-reviewed article becomes part of scientific knowledge.

Now, of course, my bike can’t be in the shop for six months, and doing these experiments and writing them up takes more time and money than doing the imperfect solutions suggested by my mechanic. But, this research may help diagnose hundreds of other noises across the country. The theory we put together may explain other annoyances of bicycles – and maybe cars and motorcycles too. Sharing the cost of running this experiment beforehand could have potentially saved me and others thousands of dollars and hours spent answering similar questions.

Of course, these details are rarely included in media accounts of the research (even less in the lede). Methods sections of scientific articles are impenetrable mazes of jargon, and short summaries tend to highlight implications over process. Work like AAAS Project 2061 to engage K-12 students in support of Next Generation Science Standards is critical to develop these competencies early on. Outside the formal curriculum, however, we can all do a lot more to meet people where they are to explain not just the results of science but the amazing process of discovery.

AAAS 2017: Serving Society through Science Policy

3/12/2016

Written by Kenny Kang

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a professional society founded in 1848 with a core mission to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people,” hosts biannual meetings, which focus on different themes. To the benefit of those of us at MIT, the Fall 2017 meeting was hosted at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, and to the interest to those of us in the Science Policy Initiative (SPI), the theme was “Serving Society through Science Policy.”

A distinction that may not be clear for those just starting to think about becoming involved with science policy is the difference between “science for policy” and “policy for science.” The former refers to conducting scientific research or using scientific data to inform policy decisions, whereas the latter is more about how policy making may affect how we do science in terms of factors such as regulations and funding. The two are complementary, yet the difference could determine how scientists enter the policy realm. The conference was a great way for us to be exposed to both sides of science policy and to start thinking about how scientists can fit into it all.

The AAAS mini-CASE (Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering) workshop, an abridged version of AAAS’s very popular annual multi-day workshop, provided a big-picture of where science fits into the policy making process in the federal government. The session organized by SPI, “How Early Career Scientists can Serve Science through Policy,” brought together a panel of career scientists who have also stayed engaged and made an impact in science policy. The session “Community-Scientist Partnerships: Bridging the Gap between Communities and Science,” exposed attendees to feasible avenues of getting involved in our communities by inviting those with experience engaging in science policy at the local level.

Despite the breadth and diversity of the sessions at the conference, there were recurring themes that should be highlighted as take-home lessons when it comes to becoming involved in science policy.

Learn to communicate

As scientists, we get very comfortable speaking with other scientists. We use scientific lingo to communicate our work to others, and especially in a “bubble” such as Cambridge, this can quickly become seemingly normal. However, we need to realize that the vast majority of the country, especially those in Washington D.C. do not speak the same way, so we need to adapt how we communicate based on our audience. This issue was highlighted very clearly during one of the sessions, when one of the speakers used the word “uncertainty” as an example. For those of us in science, regardless of the field, the word “uncertainty” is fairly harmless and is accepted as a part of our work. However, to those outside of science, the very concept can be difficult to grasp and accept.

It is not only specific words, but also the structure of how we communicate that we need to adapt. When it comes to presenting our work, scientists first start with relevant background, go into the data, and finally present the conclusion; in other words, it starts broadly and narrows in focus. Policy makers want the reverse. They first want the bottom line, followed by the topic’s relevance and the details.

Get educated on the issues

Unfortunately for scientists, science is not the only issue that is considered in the policy-making process. Regardless of how strongly we feel we have made our case with and for science, policy makers must weigh many other factors such as economic, social, and demographic implications, among others, when making decisions. Therefore, it is critical that scientists are also educated and become at least somewhat literate in other areas that impact policy-making. Showing how science fits into the bigger picture will be more effective than simply saying “science is cool, science is important.”

Get involved (early and locally)

One lesson that was highlighted many times was to make ourselves available. We don’t need to go to Washington to make an impact. Visit your representatives’ local offices where their schedules are more amenable to meeting with you and put your name out there as a resource as someone they could contact if they had relevant questions.

Several panelists also stressed the importance of getting involved at the local level and visiting state representatives. People often overlook what happens at the state level, but what happens locally can have significant effects on science policy. In addition, forming relationships locally can lead to having allies at the federal level when they then move on to Washington.

As graduate students, it is easy to get tunnel vision and only see our work within the scope of what did or did not work from one day to the next. The AAAS conference was a refreshing reminder of the bigger picture, and a realization that there are many available avenues through which we can begin making an impact.

Guest Blog Post: Seamus Bann

3/10/2016

Written by Seamus Bann

The American Association for the Advancement of Science exists at a unique interface between science and society: aside from publishing the journal Science, AAAS focuses on STEM education, global science outreach, and participates in science policy and advocacy on behalf of the U.S. scientific community. As a graduate student in AeroAstro and the Technology and Policy Program, I’m passionate about the role scientists and engineers play in advancing fact-based assessments of the nation’s most pressing issues, and I firmly believe that the academic community has a critical voice in building constructive policies. My research, for example, focuses on alternative transportation fuels, but my work intentionally addresses actions taken by the Environmental Protection Agency to promote the use of renewable gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. The importance of cross-disciplinary inquiry was on full display at the recent AAAS Annual Meeting (held February 16-20 in Boston) with seminars ranging from “Global Climate Change Imperatives in a Post-Paris Agreement World” to “Leveraging Linguistics to Broaden Participation in STEM.” The latter talk, given jointly by Anne Charity-Hudley (of William and Mary), Mary Bucholtz (of UC Santa Barbara), and Michael DeGraff (of MIT) emphasized the importance of leveraging the backgrounds of socio-linguistically diverse students—with evidence drawn from African-American, Haitian, and Latina/Latino communities—to bolster STEM education within those populations. Another discussion with Jed Rakoff (of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York), Jose Almirall (of Florida International University), and William Thompson (of UC Irvine) highlighted the importance of scientific rigor during forensic investigations. These sessions illustrated important issues—climate change, STEM education, and criminal justice—but emphasized the essential contributions of good science toward robust solutions.

 As a participant in the Student Poster Competition, I had an opportunity to discuss my research with students from around the country. I presented my work on alternative jet fuel production pathways in the “Environmental and Ecology” category, with other students presenting in categories such as “Brain and Behavior,” “Cellular and Molecular Biology,” “Developmental Biology, Physiology, and Immunology,” and “Physical Sciences,” to name a few. One poster, from fellow MIT student Marika Psyhojos, explained the role of the Internet of Things in promoting better care for older adults. A survey of doctors around the country fueled a discussion about how new innovations might best support a burgeoning aging population. Another poster, from University of Kentucky student Grant Victor, described widespread opioid and heroin abuse trends around the United States. Both posters, found in the “Science in Society” category, struck me as particularly relevant to two pressing issues that receive considerable media attention: how best to provide geriatric care and the nationwide opioid epidemic. As policymakers across the country wade into debates about how best to address these issues, perhaps the best starting point might be to consult the researchers—like Marika and Grant—who use the scientific method to deliver fact-supported conclusions.

Guest Blog Post: Jackie Ohmura

3/9/2017

Written by Jackie Ohmura

As a PhD candidate interested in a career in academia and policy, attending the 2017 AAAS conference was an indispensable experience.  The conference included a diverse assortment of talks and workshops, while providing other career promoting resources such as providing a speed mentoring workshop and professional headshots tothe attendees!  Throughout the weekend, I was able to present myresearch at the student poster session, as well as attend talks directly related to my work.  This includedsections focusing on energy infrastructures in North America, Europe, and Asia as well as green chemistry.  The seminars at AAAS provided a different perspective from field specific conferences.  Exploring the interplay between policy, the integration of technology in society, and the development of science, the AAAS seminars gave a wider view of research impact on society.  Presenting research at AAAS also differed from that of presenting at field specific conferences.  It was a great opportunity to describe my work to not only other scientists outside of my field, but also members of the journalism community. 

As readers of this blog are presumably interested in the policy and career building portions of the AAAS conference, I also want to take time to detail my experiences attending the AAAS workshops and non-research based sessions.  As an early career scientist, I found both offerings to be extremely helpful.  With respect to workshops, I had a great experience at the speed-mentoring event.  At this event, conference attendees rotated tables every 15 minutes to speak with a different ‘mentor’.  At the start of the event, mentors introduced their backgrounds so that each attendee would be able to seek out mentors best suited for their career trajectories.  As a result, each attendee had an extremely tailored experience.  I, personally, talked to mentors with great perspectives on blending academic careers with policy. With respect to the plethora of non-research focused sessions, I mainly attended sessions focused on science communication and career pathways.   As an example of content, the session ‘Science Communication Strategies in Academic, Government, and Non-Profit Sectors’ brought up a lot of great pointers on communicating effectively based on the audience.  One such pointer was direction to the writing tool ‘compass box’ to assist in organizing scientific communication aimed at the general public.

In conclusion, the workshops and seminars afforded at the AAAS conference were an extremely enriching experience.  Nonetheless, I found the most rewarding part of attending the AAAS conference to be interacting with the other attendees.  The members of the community were so enthusiastic about serving policy through science, interested in learning about my experiences, as well as helping each other realize their goals.  To me, the conference was also a great reminder that science policy is filled with a growing community of supportive individuals.

Reflections from AAAS 

3/8/2017

Written by Donovan Guttieres

This year’s theme for the AAAS meeting was “science policy for society,” which I was very drawn to as a current Technology Policy Program student within the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, & Society. Outside of MIT, I am also part of a participatory youth engagement mechanism within the UN system, called the UN Major Group for Children & Youth (UN MGCY), that is entirely youth-led and volunteer based, engaging youth (up to 30 years old) in a dozen different intergovernmental processes related to sustainable development. Its role is to facilitate meaningfully engagement of youth – including young scientists and engineers - in the policy design, implementation, follow-up and review stages across all levels (global, national, and local level). Attending the conference with a few colleagues from both MIT and UN MGCY, I had the pleasure of engaging in substantive discussions in the lead-up, during, and after the forum. I would like to share a few of the highlights from the sessions which I attended:

Power of Networks

The value of networks is difficult to measure until an opportunity presents itself to leverage a discussion or card exchange. The format and organization of the conference was conducive to interactions between people across fields, nationalities, and generations. Given the multidimensional and multidisciplinary nature of science policy, the rich diversity of participants helped promote substantive dialogue and networking that will surely have long-term effects. 

Science Communication

 Effective science communication is crucial in appropriately impacting society through science policy. Whether it’s communicating data, interpreting or applying science, or putting engineering principles into practice, bridging gaps between science and policy is vital in successfully enacting sustainable and positive change. Although science is objectively derived, it is often subjectively interpreted, influenced by underlying values and local context that have unique socio-cultural, economic, and environmental priorities.

Science practitioners, more and more, are being urged to assist policy making, contributing to an era of evidence-informed policy. However, this approach not always meets societal needs. This is partly due to ineffective communication of science and persisting gap between science practitioners and policy makers. Therefore, effective communication must help in closing the gaps between science and policy in order to galvanize public interest, promote well-founded advocacy, and help steer decision making.

In doing so, it important to explore sources of disconnect, perceived or real, between science / policy / society and how it has contributed to rifts over knowledge assessments, interpretation of empirical data, and even influence outcomes of both scientific and policy processes. Creative ways should be developed to enhance avenues for young practitioners to communicate their work for effective integration into policy and into inform public knowledge, as participatory mechanisms for science and technology impact assessments. 

Advisory Mechanism

Several sessions focused on the role of science and technology advisory systems. One particular sessions discussed the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM), hosted in the European Commission's Directorate General for Research and Innovation, whose purpose is to draw upon a wide range of experts to support the Commission with high quality, timely and independent scientific advice for its policy-making activities. A similar initiative, spearheaded by the Science & Technology Advisory to the US Department of State, is a newly launched network of science and technology advisors to foreign governments. The first public meeting of the network members, from both developed and developing countries, took place during a special session hosted at Tufts by The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Science Diplomacy Club. The interactive dialogue helped highlight best practices for science advise, referencing similar processes ongoing at the UN level such as the Technology Facilitation Mechanism, as well as formally announcing the launch of a new center dedicated to science diplomacy.

Recommendations

The Annual AAAS, with its multiple parallel sessions, packed rooms, and socials is as much as you make it. Whether you have specific objective in mind or just looking to learn, it can definitely be an enjoyable experience.  If interested in learning, I would be more than happy to discuss my experiences. Additionally, I would like to share a few opportunities for further engagement in the UN MGCY related to science-policy:

  • Join and participate in a growing network for of young practitioners working on sustainable development policy through the UN MGCY Science-Policy Interface Platform.
  • Join a science, technology, and innovation consultation between universities in both Boston and Cambridge to discuss the appropriate use of technology and innovation policy for achieving the newly established Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Join a webinar being hosted at the end of March on effective science communication for policy and the role of young practitioners.
  • Join a group of students attending the Annual Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology, & Innovation for SDGs (May 15-16) in NYC at the UN Headquarters.

For more information on the above activities, email spiteam@childrenyouth.org

Get Involved

3/6/2017

Written by Angela Phillips

“Get involved” was the resounding theme of each session I attended at the AAAS conference. Each panelist had their own concerns about the future of science in the Trump administration, but two echoing fears were that our current apparatus for using science to inform policy would be dismantled, and that R & D would be the first to face cuts in the discretionary budget. Speakers called upon scientists to stand up for science, and to change the academic culture such that scientists are rewarded, not punished, for engaging with society. Panelists encouraged their audiences to write blogs and opinion columns, march in the streets, spotlight falsehoods, engage with their local communities, tithe 10% of their time to public service, and run for office.

For actions to take in the short term, the March for Science came up in several discussions. While audience members had mixed feelings about the march, panelists seemed largely united in supporting and participating in the march. Questions were raised about whether the march would cause science to become politicized. Some shot this down by claiming that, to an extent, science has already become politicized. Others acknowledged the risk, and said that we must do as much damage control as possible to prevent science from being politicized or becoming partisan.

But how? Speakers were in agreement that we had to tell stories of society benefiting from science. To scientists, the societal benefits of science may seem obvious, but these connections must be made apparent to the general public. We must convince them that their well being depends on scientific progress.

But how? For some students, the impact of their work was clear: clinical researchers working to advance modern medicine and extended life expectancy, or atmospheric chemists improving climate prediction models to better inform sustainability policy. Other students, who were studying obscure systems with limited immediate societal impact, were at a loss. The fact is that many of us conduct fundamental research—it doesn’t have an intended application, and is therefore seemingly more difficult to generate public interest and financial support. So we need to dig a bit deeper…what are examples of how basic research has enabled advances in medicine, biotechnology, and environmental sustainability? The connections are there, we just have to do more leg work to point them out, and no one is going to do this for us. If we want the public to support the scientific community, and to appreciate the products of our work, we have to make the broader impact of our work undeniably obvious.

So as we gear up for the March for Science, I am reaching out to my hometown community, a deep red county that borders President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. I want them to understand why we are marching. I want them to know how science benefits everyone, and how important it us for our nation to value science. I want them to understand that we are marching to protect these societal benefits, not to secure funding for our own professional gains.

So I urge every scientist to look back to where you grew up, where you went to college, and where you have family members. Are there communities that you can communicate this message to? Write a guest column. Give a talk at your high school. Volunteer in your community. Get involved.