Emanuel DiCicco-Bloom remembers a time when students were looked down on if they graduated with advanced science degrees and did not follow a career path into the research laboratory.But with an increasingly challenging job market, fewer federal research grants and a need for more scientists in government, DiCicco-Bloom, a top autism researcher at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, says, today, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I think this reset is long overdue,” said DiCicco-Bloom, a neuroscience professor at the medical school. “We need scientists that are able to communicate what is exciting about science and open the eyes of those non-scientists who might not have the information they need to make important decisions that affect society as a whole.”
DiCicco-Bloom is collaborating with other Rutgers scientists and public policy gurus from the university’s Eagleton Institute of Politics to provide information that will help graduate students and postdocs who want to bypass the bench and go into public policy instead.
“We have an obligation to teach science students to value and understand the policymaking process and students of politics to value and understand the methods and discoveries of science,” said Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute. “It’s urgent that knowledge and mutual respect underlie the relationship between policymakers, politicians and scientists.”
That’s why the Eagleton Institute created a series of workshops for graduate student scientists and postdocs who might benefit from knowing more about how scientific training can intersect with politics, policymaking and public discourse. They learn about the role research plays in policymaking, how scientific data should be communicated to both public and government officials, and how scientists can influence politics.
Megan Anderson Brooks, a senior policy associate on Capitol Hill, who was instrumental in getting the Rutgers program started, says often times graduate student scientists don’t have the information they need about alternative career choices that would make it possible to transition from academics and scientific research to policymaking and public advocacy.
“I was always open to alternative career paths but I didn’t know exactly what they would mean for me,” said Anderson Brooks, who received a doctoral degree in neuroscience from Rutgers and completed a fellowship from the Eagleton Institute before moving to Washington, D.C. to work as a lobbyist. “I realized that with diminishing public investment in science, I could take a more direct role in fighting the fight and talking about why biomedical research is so important.”
Anderson Brooks, whose new job has her coordinating congressional briefings and public policy symposiums, developing communication strategies, lobbying for biomedical research funding and monitoring policy decisions, will be back at Rutgers on December 4 when Eagleton holds its third symposium – “Advocating for Science – How to Inform and Persuade Politicians.”
Former United States Congressman and physicist Rush Holt, now CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and one of the few scientists to serve in Congress, will be the forum’s keynote. Joanne Padron Carney, the director of the AAAS Government Relations office, will join Holt and offer students insight into the national political agenda which continues to be dominated by sequestration and reducing the federal deficit.
In the spring, former New Jersey Governor and federal Environmental Protection Agency director Christine Todd Whitman is slated to be part of the institute’s next program where the politics of climate change will be discussed.
At a time when many national politicians are quick to respond, “I am not a scientist,” if asked to comment on an array of topics ranging from evolution and climate change to vaccines and Ebola, those involved in the Eagleton program insist that more scientists need to be in the public sphere discussing the realities of science and how taxpayer dollars are being spent.
“It’s important for policymakers and scientists to talk, to understand one another’s ways of thinking,” said Mandel. “Without some common understanding of each other’s languages, working methods and constraints, neither politician nor scientists can fulfill their basic responsibilities to use their positions to benefit society.”
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