By Melissa Varga, Jorge Ramos, and Valorie Aquino
2020 is here and it’s a big deal. With a presidential election, the escalating climate crisis , and social inequality exacerbating public health inequities, the pressure is on for all of us to raise our voices to draw the connection between how science can help us solve some of our most pressing problems. All of these issues sit at the intersection of science and equity. Without science, we can’t make well-informed decisions. We need science to support the development of well-informed decisions that will benefit everyone.
Knowledge is power.
As scientists and STEM students, we are uniquely positioned to help raise awareness about the connections between science and equity, and use our knowledge and networks to make a difference. There are myriad terms used to describe this type of engagement: outreach, science communication, advocacy, etc. Sometimes people use them interchangeably, but they have different (complementary) goals.
● Outreach is usually about raising awareness and increasing understanding of science
● Science communication is about informing your audience
● Advocacy is an action — your goal is to create change in support of an issue.
Science communication and outreach can be powerful tools in your advocacy toolbox, because they can help you build relationships with key audiences and stakeholders and develop messages that resonate with those audiences. Advocacy can be the next step in bringing science-informed solutions to our communities.
Here are five science advocacy tips to get you started.
1. Get Specific.
What is the specific, concrete change you’d like to see? At what level could that change be made? The federal level gets a lot of attention for how policies are (or aren’t) passed, but most issues also have state, local, and even institutional scales of engagement you could look into. For example, if you’re interested in immigration, you could see what local laws make your community more welcoming for immigrants, or how your organization or campus offers financial support to people who aren’t citizens. Once you’ve identified your issue and the level you want to engage on, ask “Who can make that change happen?” This person (it should only be one person) is your target — your goal is to make them say yes to your specific ask. This is the most important strategic question to consider, because identifying the right decision maker allows you to focus your energy on getting them on your side.
2. Do Your Research!
As a SACNISTA, you’ve been building your research skills, likely for years. It’s time to put them to work for advocacy! Dig into what your target has said and done on your issue. Sticking with the immigration example, have they voted on any immigration related issues in the past? Have they made statements about this issue in the media or on social media? What are the top issues they talk about or campaigned on — how do those connect to your issue? What constituencies are important to them? The internet can help you figure out what makes your target tick.
3. Craft Your Approach.
What do you have to offer that will make your target more likely to say yes? Think carrots and sticks. For example, the decision maker will likely need support from the public, constituents, or key groups in order to make a decision — can you demonstrate that the decision maker will have a strong backing? Do you have connections to a university, science organization or professional scientific society, or student group that could help support or put pressure on the decision maker? Do you have access to research or data that backs up your stance that could help convince the decision maker? Think about all of your networks and connections (inside and outside of STEM) to take stock of how you can best approach the target.
4. Right Message, Right Time.
Based on all of your research, develop and practice your pitch for your issue for your interaction with the target. Identify the right time to meet with them, and consider a wide range of factors while doing so. When can a decision actually be made on this issue — what does the legislative calendar look like if they’re a policymaker, when will they be thinking about your issue vs thinking about their next election? Is there a time when there will be peak energy around the issue you can capitalize on?
5. Don’t Get Discouraged.
Advocacy is a marathon, not a sprint. It can take a long time to see meaningful change on important issues, and it’s easy to get fed up and think that your voice doesn’t matter — but it does! Joining an advocacy organization, like the Union of Concerned Scientists, March for Science, or a local or campus-based advocacy group can help you build a support network to make sure you don’t feel alone in the struggle. Plus, this work is more fun if you’re around other like-minded passionate people. Another plus for reaching out to existing advocacy groups — they may have already done some of this planning around your issue and your target and can offer helpful opportunities for you to get plugged into existing efforts.
You have a big toolbox.
There are a lot of great tools out there to support your advocacy work. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a free Scientist Advocacy Toolkit with how-to guides on meeting with policymakers, organizing events, doing research on your targets, and more. Scientific societies like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Ecological Society of America, American Public Health Association and others offer workshops on policy advocacy and may have sections or subcommittees dedicated to this type of engagement. And don’t forget SACNAS! We first discussed these science advocacy tips at a workshop at 2019 SACNAS — The National Diversity in STEM Conference — you can check out the advocacy pledges from workshop attendees here.
Take the Science Rising Challenge.
If you’re interested in more ways to raise your voice in 2020, you can check out Science Rising to join the movement to stand up for science, equity, and justice leading up to the fall election. Take the Science Rising Challenge to participate in different types of civic engagement activities on your campus or community to turn out the science vote this year, and to build democratic habits that will continue beyond this election year.
Building a culture of science engagement.
If you are already participating in science outreach and science communication, you have started the process by raising awareness of science issues. Advocacy is not just about taking action as individual scientists. It’s about building a culture within the scientific community that is accepting and supportive of scientist engagement.
As SACNISTAS, we are encouraged to bring our full selves to our scientific endeavors — and those endeavors should also include speaking out about important scientific issues if you feel comfortable doing so. There’s never been a more important time for scientists to raise our voices. Whatever path your advocacy takes, we welcome you to the science advocacy movement!
About the Authors
Melissa Varga, Science Network Community Manager and Partnerships Coordinator, Union of Concerned Scientists.
Melissa Varga is Science Network community manager and partnerships coordinator at UCS. She manages the online community for the Science Network, a group of nearly 25,000 scientists and technical experts interested in science advocacy, which offers its members resources, trainings, webinars, and opportunities to get involved in the issues they care about. She is a lead organizer of Science Rising.
Jorge Ramos, PhD, Associate Director for Environmental Education, Stanford University
Dr. Jorge Ramos is the Associate Director for Environmental Education at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve of Stanford University. Jorge oversees the education program at Jasper Ridge that can amount to more than 8,000 educational and outreach visits a year by people from very diverse ages, interests, careers and backgrounds. He also co-teaches the Ecology and Natural History of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (EARTHSYS 105A) during the winter and spring quarters that immerses students in the scientific basis of ecological research in the context of a field station and multidisciplinary environmental education.
Valorie Aquino, Executive Director, March for Science Community and co-founder of March for Science
One of three national co-chairs for the historic March for Science, which was collectively held at more than 600 locations on all continents on Earth Day 2017, Valorie Aquino now serves as the inaugural Executive Director of March for Science Community. March for Science represents the largest network of grassroots science advocates in the world, which has collectively facilitated more than 1,000 demonstrations on all continents in three years. She studied journalism, anthropology, archaeology, and geochemistry, and her scientific contributions have been published in high-impact journals, including Science, and Nature Geoscience.