CASE STUDY

National Science Policy Network

Empowering a diverse national network of early career scientists to advocate for science-based public policy

Benjamin Jones
Jun 1 · 8 min read
Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Catalyze the engagement of early career scientists and engineers in policy making by training the next generation of diverse leaders, empowering them to advocate for science-based public policies and fostering community.

Enable rapid growth by providing strategic consulting, practical expertise and credibility with funders to a motivated team of new nonprofit leaders who are building a thriving national organization.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election kickstarted a wave of activism among early career scientists and engineers who realized that an impending lack of science-based decision making would pose a major threat to society.

But as science policy groups began springing up on campuses across the country, it became obvious that emerging science leaders needed opportunities and training to engage in policy advocacy, an area that rarely is incorporated into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. The National Science Policy Network (NSPN) fills that gap by training early career scientists and engineers in the skills needed to inform public policy, creating connections through its nationwide chapter network and supporting a diverse community of policy advocates.

“We are living in a world in which science is politicized and rarely drives critical policy decisions,” says NSPN Director of Communications Caitlin Warlick-Short. “NSPN envisions a world in which the scientific community is a pivotal voice in all levels of policy making, scientists and engineers are equipped to contribute to public policy, and our society values their role as engaged public citizens. NSPN creates seats at policy-making tables for scientists with a diverse set of backgrounds, viewpoints and cultures.”

NSPN’s founders established the project under the bureaucratic umbrella of a large university, and they were highly motivated to find a more flexible home where they could gain experience in starting, running and rapidly scaling a chapter-based nonprofit organization. A funder referred them to Multiplier in 2019, and it was the ideal fit.

“We knew that if given the tools to be successful, including access to funding for expansion, the NSPN team had the right make-up of leadership and determination to quickly grow a nationwide network of chapters,” says Laura Deaton, Multiplier’s executive director. “Our operations team was perfectly poised to help guide them through the ropes of running a nonprofit and our accelerator team was able to help them jump-start the process of growing the network.”

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Warlick-Short notes that the NSPN founders are all early career scientists, and none of them had any experience running or even working for a nonprofit. “Multiplier has been an incredible help in terms of capacity building, defining our theory of change and developing basic processes that allow us to navigate through challenges.”

She adds that the founders initially found it hard to convince professors, other organizations and funders to take them seriously. “They’ve seen many groups like ours come and go. Having Multiplier’s team as advocates has been crucial not only in helping us launch but also in proving our staying power.”

NSPN pursues its mission through programs like the Op-ed Accelerator, National Science Policy Symposium and SciPol Scholars-in-Residence program, which give early career scientists the training, opportunities and connections they need to effectively engage in policy making. It’s an ambitious slate of initiatives, and while the founders are highly capable, they needed expert counsel on building an organization that could keep up with their ideas.

Multiplier’s first step was helping NSPN access growth funding. “Multiplier lends legitimacy to groups like ours that otherwise have trouble getting attention,” says Warlick-Short. “They have strong relationships with major family foundations like the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which is now one of NSPN’s core funders. Not only did the team help us build this relationship by legitimizing us and our vision, but they also taught us to dream big and ask for more, and to do it with a well-formed approach designed to drive impact.”

Next, Multiplier worked with NSPN on the nuts and bolts of running a nonprofit. Multiplier’s senior leaders provided strategy facilitation and leadership coaching, and helped the founders structure their advisory board. Multiplier also helped put processes in place in tricky areas unique to the nonprofit sector, like navigating private benefit prohibitions and lobbying rules, both of which affected core aspects of NSPN’s programming. In addition, Multiplier assisted with developing a financial infrastructure that included creative ways to fund university chapters, a streamlined process for expense reimbursements and regrants, a simplified procedure for providing stipends to conference attendees, and an IRS-compliant platform for selling merchandise.

“The Multiplier team is empowering us to learn, grow and do,” Warlick-Short says. “Rather than just swooping in and giving us the answers to our problems, they take the time to explain the reasoning behind the options so that we can make more informed decisions in the future.”

NSPN faces an unusual set of challenges, including a need to restructure for growth and longevity, internal team-building complexities and continued access to funding.

Since most NSPN leaders are pursuing advanced degrees and teaching or serving as fellows for their day jobs, the project has multiple part-time directors who jointly fulfill the role that one full-time director normally would fill. They support and guide a 16-person leadership team, which is elected by NSPN members. The team includes eight regional hub chairs, who are elected by members in their region.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Right away, Multiplier helped NSPN strengthen relationships between the four co-directors and solidify their organizational vision.“The Multiplier team has amazing insight on how to build relationships,” says Warlick-Short.

Multiplier also helped NSPN create a seven-member advisory board to counsel the co-directors on major decisions and consulted on the hiring of a full-time programs and operations coordinator. Multiplier Human Resources Director Kristin Fischer played a key role in their decision-making, Warlick-Short says.

“Kristin sat in on our interviews and let us run the show while advising on elements like setting a reasonable compensation package. She also has a great ear for nuance. As we neared the end of our hiring process, we were deciding between two candidates who we felt were both ideal fits for the job. Kristin pointed out differences in the language that each candidate used when describing how they navigate challenges like workplace conflict. With her help, we definitely made the right choice.”

Multiplier is now working with NSPN on hiring a full-time managing director and turning the 16-member leadership team into a leadership council that will work alongside staff to drive key aspects of NSPN’s mission, including program innovation and interacting with members.

“NSPN has grown much more rapidly than expected,” says Deaton, noting that the organization has more than 1,300 members and over 60 chapters across more than 45 states and territories, a significant increase from 220 members and 32 chapters across 22 states in July 2019. “In 2021, they expected to have an annual budget of approximately $400,000, but that budget is actually approaching $600,000. In addition, NSPN is a feeder network to other coalitions and networks, so it occupies valuable real estate in the ecosystem. They saw a need, filled it, and are going strong.”

NSPN’s success stems from and fuels its robust programming, which includes these core initiatives and partnerships, all of which the team hopes to grow in the coming years:

, an intensive six-week remote training and fellowship program that matches fellows with partner organizations to complete residencies. Placements for the inaugural cohort include Annual Reviews, Federation of American Scientists, Sandia National Labs, Lewis-Burke Associates, Union of Concerned Scientists and Science for Georgia.

The annual, which attracted over 500 attendees to its first virtual program in 2020 and 15 diverse recruiting organizations to the science policy career fair component.

grantssupporting local chapter initiatives to reach out to underrepresented communities and grants to outside organizations serving students or early career scientists.

The program, which resulted in more than 20 member op-eds getting published in 2020, and the , which challenges emerging scientists to hone their writing skills and raise awareness of critical challenges through an annual theme. This year’s theme highlighted science policy issues that directly affect marginalized scientists and communities.

A that engages early career scientists in Wiki Weekends during which they edit Wikipedia pages to improve their accuracy and add new science topics (377 articles edited, 70 new articles created and counting).

The , a collaboration with the Federation of American Scientists that drew over 500 scientists to answer nearly 2,000 questions from the public and expand a central information repository.

Looking forward, NSPN hopes to increase the funding available to support local chapters and new public engagement initiatives, build new affiliations with universities and expand its justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) initiatives. Currently, individual chapters are advocating for inclusion policies in graduate student recruiting, mentorship and retention, while the NSPN team is focused on fostering chapter development and membership growth at HBCU campuses.

“Early career BIPOC and other minority scientists must be included in science policy, communications and diplomacy,” says Warlick-Short. “By improving access to education and mentorship, we can elevate the voices and careers of those most excluded and most needed in science policy.”

  1. Engaged in deep conversations about strategy and operational structure to produce a model including a well-respected advisory board that provides stability through planned turnover and limited leadership availability.
  2. Provided hands-on support in human resources and internal communications, including offering insight at every step of the hiring process as NSPN recruited its first full-time employee, facilitating discussion at NSPN’s first leadership retreat, and suggesting best practices for managing personalities in an organization run by passionate and driven students.
  3. Guided NSPN in developing a strong and fundable theory of change.

Project details

Startup/Network builder

Science policy

April 2019 to present

Seed funding and growth funding from two major science-focused family foundations and a tech-focused fund

Quality Education, Reduced Inequalities, Partnerships for the Goals

P Cubed

People, planet, possibilities: turning ideas into impact