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Boundary Organizations

How do I know what a policymaker is interested in? How do I make connections? When is the best time to meet with policymakers?

If you, like me, are interested in making connections between your scientific findings and the daily decisions of policymakers, these may be some of the questions that you have been asking. During graduate school I spent a lot of time and effort learning about science communication. I practiced techniques for honing my message, thinking about the interests and needs of the audience, and considering how I could speak about the broader scientific findings of my field rather than just the nitty gritty details of my own projects. But as I stepped out with my bag full of methods and techniques, I was sometimes frustrated: Now that I know more about how to communicate, where am I supposed to find the actual people to communicate with?

This can be a significant challenge. Often graduate and early career work puts us in cities and towns that we’ve never lived in. It can also be challenging to identify the different individuals involved in specific areas of decision-making. And there can be uncertainty about getting involved in issues that appear partisan. While there’s no silver bullet for moving past these challenges, I want to share a few ideas and resources that have helped me to connect to decision makers and put my well-practiced skills to work.

First, take stock of the topics that you can assist with. If someone asked me at a much earlier time about what topics I could speak to as an expert I might have said ‘Greenland ice sheet dynamics’ or ‘Greenland glacier retreat’ because these were the topics that I had written scientific papers about. But in fact, my expertise is much, much broader. With an undergraduate degree in Geological and Environmental Sciences, graduate degrees in Earth and Space Sciences, and a certificate in Climate Change, I know quite a bit about Earth surface processes, climate patterns, and the physical environmental system as a whole. In fact, a quick consultation on the numbers of PhDs conferred by topic suggests I might know more about these topics than ~99% of the U.S. population! As a trained scientist, I also know how to investigate a question and conduct quality literature or hands-on research to find an answer. Step back from the details of your research and consider – what is the broad area of my expertise and what topics would I like to cover as a scientific expert? Use this broader picture to guide your communication scope.

Second, consider the ecosystem of decision-making and think about where you want to join in the discussion. Decisions are being made constantly all around us. Local level decisions by the city council, state legislators determining regional paths, and national and international questions addressed by federal representatives. Businesses, individuals, and communities are also making short and long-term plans. Where do you want to get involved? Local involvement may provide more hands-on opportunities. You may be able to act as a more central character. Connecting with policymakers locally can also sometimes feel less partisan and more collaborative. Or perhaps you are attracted to national-scale topics and want to connect to federal legislators. Making these connections may be more difficult and time consuming, but every federal legislator has a suite of staff with whom you might start to form relationships. Ask yourself – what decisions and communities do I want to connect with more closely? Guide your answer by examining what sounds fun and energizing to you.

Third, connect with a boundary organization or two to help you create connections and understand the people and issues involved. You now have a sense of the scope of topics that you’d like to represent and an idea for the communities and questions that you want to be engaged with. The next step is actually making those connections. Fortunately, you don’t need to start from scratch. There are many organizations that are already working to connect scientists to decision making communities. These ‘boundary organizations’ can take many forms. Since I work on land ice and sea level rise, I’ve found helpful partners via state Sea Grant programs, non-profits like the Nature Conservancy, and professional organizations like the American Society of Adaptation Professionals. Boundary organizations have helped me to understand the broad scope of issues that decision makers must consider, to identify appropriate decision maker meetings that I can attend, and to make direct connections with individuals. Make contact with a boundary organization that works on your topic of interest and take advantage of their rich knowledge and networks. These groups can help you to target your efforts, align your messaging with existing projects, and structure your interactions.

Finally, recognize that developing meaningful relationships with decision makers can take consistent effort to nurture connections over many years. Don’t expect quick results. Instead, focus on deepening your understanding of the many elements connected to your issue of interest, learn the policy language, and show up with consistency in the places where decision makers spend time (attending their meetings, writing for their publications, etc.). The process may be slow, but it can also be rewarding. Being able to contribute my scientific voice to important work outside of academia has often felt like my most impactful work. With time and careful effort, you can also expand your contributions in new and meaningful ways.

Ready to do more? Check out these resources:

- Learn more about connecting with D.C. policymakers via the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium (https://www.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/policy/summer-policy-colloquium/)

- Volunteer with the AGU Thriving Earth Exchange to work directly on a community-identified problem. (https://thrivingearthexchange.org/)

- Connect with a regional Sea Grant (https://seagrant.noaa.gov/) or RISA (Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments Program - https://cpo.noaa.gov/Meet-the-Divisions/Climate-and-Societal-Interactions/RISA) group.

- Further reading: Evans, M. C., and C. Cvitanovic (2018), An introduction to achieving policy impact for early career researchers, Palgrave Communications, doi:10.1057/s41599-018-0144-2.

 

Dr. Twila Moon is Deputy Lead Scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (https://nsidc.org/), part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (https://cires.colorado.edu/) at the University of Colorado Boulder, a world leader in Earth sciences. Dr. Moon is an expert in glaciers and ice sheets, and the connections among ice, climate, ocean, and ecosystem. Her research has been published in high-impact journals such as Science and Nature. An accomplished science communicator, Dr. Moon has testified for Congress (https://science.house.gov/hearings/earths-thermometers-glacial-and-ice-sheet-melt-in-a-changing-climate), spoken to media from around the world, and is leading efforts to improve knowledge exchange between scientists and stakeholders. After completing degrees at Stanford (BS) and the University of Washington (MS, PhD), she conducted research at the University of Colorado, University of Oregon, and University of Bristol (UK) before returning to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in 2017. Additional information on her work is available at www.changingice.com.


Email - twila.moon@colorado.edu

Twitter - @twilamoon





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