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Advocating for Science by Engaging Local Communities
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Atulya Prasad

 

On Earth Day 2017, thousands of people rallied at 600 marches around the United States and the world in support of science. The stated goals included advocating for policy based on data and highlighting the aspiration to objectivity in scientific research. There is a need to seize this energy and continue to advocate for science. Engaging local and federal legislators is one path for advocacy. Another is to engage the surrounding community.

 

Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory are in New York’s 1st Congressional District, which received $77.3 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and $39 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2016 (FASEB fact sheet). This funding has created a robust research enterprise whose scientists can create a scientifically literate and engaged community in the district. Members of an engaged community can lobby their representatives, feeding up to Congress where decisions on funding are made. While an obvious goal of local advocacy is continued funding for research, another impactful goal is instilling the spirit of inquiry among young students, allowing the sustenance and growth of the U.S. research enterprise>

 

Studies show that 58 percent of scientists engage in some form of scientific outreach. This is up from previous estimates of as little as 5 percent. Ecklund et al. suggest that scientists attribute lack of outreach to lack of institutional support, an uninformed public, or lack of energy among scientists. Just one-third of postdoctoral scholars surveyed across research universities in the United States were involved in outreach.

 

Institutional support has been forthcoming, particularly with funding agencies like NSF urging greater outreach through the Broader Impacts Criterion. Many universities and/or postdoctoral associations now have dedicated outreach programs. These resources are a great starting point for postdocs interested in science advocacy. An excellent first step can be writing for a community newspaper. This allows for dissemination of science to the broader community while strengthening skills as a writer. Local and university radio are also great media outlets to talk about science.

 

Currently most initiatives focus on high school outreach. These involve students working in the lab, as well as demonstrations for students and their families. Astronomers have been successful in this venture, with many “Astronomy Night” and public viewing programs at academic departments across the United States. Programs at MIT, Indiana, Michigan State, and many others, invite the community in and also have faculty and students go out and talk about their science. Recently scientists at the University of Texas in Austin reported on two programs to engage local middle schoolers: “Present Your PhD Thesis to a 12-Year Old” and “Shadow a Scientist.” Students participating in the programs reported a high interest in looking up more information on their own, achieving the goal of getting students excited about science.

 

In addition to programs to engage schoolchildren, “Science on Tap” events are a great way to engage adults. These events are generally held at a local café or bar where researchers present their work. It is an effective way to get out the message to the community, in a relaxed informal atmosphere. Some examples of this are in Columbia, MO; Philadelphia, PA; St. Louis, MO; and Stony Brook, NY.

 

Regardless of the medium, engagement of local communities has moved from an option to an imperative. With increasing institutional support and a trained, energized group of researchers, the public can be better informed.

 

Atulya Prasad, PhD, is a research scientist at NeoMatrix Therapeutics, a biotech startup, and

works with the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Dermatology at Stony Brook University.

 

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