Union of Concerned Scientists

Empowering Early Career Scientists to Engage in Science Advocacy, Policy and Communication

Photo credit: Alina Chan, Future of Research

As a member of and an advocate for the early career scientist community, I strongly believe that we are the future of science. We need to engage in activities that allow us to use our voice for the greater good, and we must do this through multiple avenues. Adapting to the changing landscape of the scientific enterprise requires integrating professional development activities into the training of early career scientists, in order to create “whole scientists.” This culture shift will enable us to utilize valuable skills acquired during our training to benefit society.

Two important aspects of this training are developing the ability to explain science to various audiences, and to effectively advocate for the importance of science within our own institutions, to policy makers, and to the general public. In a sense, I believe it is the responsibility of our generation to be the change we want to see, and to lead by example in engaging others to participate in this change with us.

It is encouraging to see that many early career scientists today seek to engage in science advocacy. But in order to achieve our advocacy goals, it is imperative to receive proper training in this area. In 2016, three organizations (Future of Research, Academics for the Future of Science, and the MIT Graduate Student Council) organized a joint “Advocating for Science” symposium and workshop in Boston, MA, with the goal of sharing tools and skills necessary to train early career scientists in advocacy. The event highlighted the eagerness of participants to advocate for a particular cause, with the overall goal of improving specific aspects of the scientific enterprise. Overall, this event catalyzed the power of early career scientists to participate in culture change around science advocacy by preparing them for future engagement opportunities.

Preparing for a career that connects science and society

Similar to most early career scientists today, I now seek a non-academic career that fulfills a greater purpose. At the same time, I am part of a generation of early career scientists that is well aware of how our academic training is not preparing us for desired (non-academic) careers. This is a particularly important consideration given that academic careers are now becoming the minority, and more early career scientists are transitioning into occupations where their scientific skills can be applied towards broader societal impacts. In particular, as science advocacy, policy and communication careers are now becoming more popular with early career scientists, the manner in which they are trained for various career paths must drastically change.

At the core of Future of Research is our mission to champion, engage and empower early career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor.” To this end, we propose changes in the scientific training environment in order to enable a more effective level of engagement in activities that complement our scientific training at the bench. The ability to communicate our science to various audiences will only enrich this training and enable us to advocate for our cause. However, this shift requires a culture change around science communication and other skills, both within academia and beyond. While many barriers still exist to enacting this change, early career scientists in many cases have developed their own programs in universities, being able to also engage others in these types of activities.

Developing initiatives at the university level to enhance advocacy, policy and science communication skills for early career scientists, in which they learn to describe their science to various audiences, is a necessary and valuable skill. Some general examples of these types of efforts are storytelling strategies, podcasts, and groups in universities. Additionally, while I was a postdoc, I developed a career seminar series to expose graduate students and postdocs to different career options. I also organized symposia to create a sense of community among scientists at all levels in the Midwest within my area of research, and to give early career scientists a voice in this event and connect with other junior and senior scientists in the area working on similar research topics.

These efforts demonstrate the willingness of early career scientists themselves to change the culture around particular issues within their local communities. Nationally, many scientific societies and organizations seek to engage early career scientists in advocating for a cause of interest, providing a natural platform in which to advocate for particular issues in various settings and to various audiences. Taking advantage of these opportunities is vital to both our professional development as scientists and to maintaining the relevance of science in society.

Personally, my goal is to advocate for junior scientists. To this end, I have been a member of both local and national committees to benefit graduate students and postdocs (UofL Postdoctoral Studies Committee, ASCB COMPASS, National Postdoctoral Association), and more broadly advocating for this population through my role on the Future of Research Board of Directors. These leadership roles have allowed me to learn about the needs of early career scientists and devise ways to best engage them in changing the academic culture. These experiences have also enabled me to create and be part of a network of professionals who share these same goals, and these individuals were also instrumental in guiding my own career path towards researching and advocating for improved policies affecting early career scientists.

Find science advocacy, policy, and communication opportunities through Science Rising

There are many ways for early career scientists to demonstrate interest in these activities and to engage others in our cause. Joining organizations such as Future of Research and the Union of Concerned Scientists are positive ways to demonstrate commitment to particular advocacy causes that we feel passionate about. Participating in local policy meet-ups with groups such as Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy can also be a way to show interest in particular policy issues affecting scientists or the general practice of doing science, as well as broader issues related to the relationship between science and society. You can find out about more opportunities and resources related to advocacy, policy and science communication through Science Rising, a new effort designed to celebrate the connections between science and society, and showcase opportunities for science supporters around the country to get more involved in advocating for science within their community as well as nationally.

Future of Research recognizes the importance of engaging early career scientists in shaping the scientific enterprise in an evidence-based manner. At the same time, this population seeks to engage with various stakeholders in advancing and advocating for the importance of science in society. We are proud to support the Science Rising movement and encourage the involvement of early career scientists in such national efforts.

Early career scientists still face many barriers to moving ahead towards effecting change. For this reason, we need everyone to get involved. Whether it’s designing career development programs on your campus or exploring ways to engage in science advocacy as a constituent, there are many ways to make a broader societal impact with your science.

Adriana Bankston is a bench scientist turned science policy researcher. She is a member of the Board of Directors at Future of Research, a nonprofit organization with a mission to champion, engage and empower early career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor. Her goals are to promote science policy and advocacy for junior scientists, and to gather and present data on various issues in the current scientific system. Previously, she was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Louisville. Adriana obtained a B.S. degree in Biological Sciences from Clemson University and a Ph.D. degree in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology from Emory University. Find her on Twitter at @AdrianaBankston

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