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Training for the future of science by Dr. Alyson Fleming

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

A major solidifying force in my decision to pursue an interdisciplinary career came from taking a course in graduate school on the history of US science policy taught by Dr. Naomi Oreskes (if you don’t know her work, it’s definitely worth adding to your summer reading list – she’s the author of numerous books including Merchants of Doubt). This course showed me how science came to be institutionalized in the political system, how the National Science Foundation came to exist, and why there is always some massively important political issue that needs science. Why? Policy is about making decisions. Making decisions requires facts and information. What provides facts and information? SCIENCE.

The intimacy between science and policy is not just a modern issue caused by increasing environmental problems. Policy usually requires making decisions quickly and without 100% certainty. Science and scientists operate in this realm of confidence continuums. They frequently ask - how certain are we that this scientific hypothesis is correct? How much data has been collected so far and how much more do we think we need? Is there a scientific consensus on this issue yet or is this a theory that is still debated? In my opinion, scientists are very good at assessing their level of confidence in research findings. So it’s not only the data and inventions that scientists produce that are helpful to informing policy actions, it’s also scientists themselves acting as interpreters of information confidence levels.

Though the fields of science and policy are tightly linked, they operate on very different time scales. Science takes a long time, policy must react to current events and plan for the near-term. Scientists will almost always want to collect more data and will shy away from making any conclusive statements. Policy makers need to make practical decisions based on the best information available today. So, while scientists are excellent at identifying uncertainty, rooting it out, and assessing how much we know, policy makers excel at making decisions despite uncertainty.

The role of scientists in informing and participating in policy making has often been debated. Should they remain impartial to all intersections of science and society and attempt to be as objective as possible solely providing scientific findings? Or should they venture into the marshland between academic and political institutions to advise and counsel policy makers? In my experience, this debate has shifted over the last ten years. In my graduate program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I was part of an early cohort of students to participate in an interdisciplinary training program that aimed to make scientists a bit more versed in communication, economics, and policy. The brainchild of Drs. Nancy Knowlton and Jeremy Jackson, this innovative program wasn’t favored by every professor in the school. Many saw it as a distraction from the “real work” that needed to be done in the lab. But by the time I finished my PhD, many of those same professors had changed their tune and were leaders of the program. In my current role as a professor of biology and marine biology, I find that almost every student I speak with these days has a great interest in interdisciplinary research and conservation applications. It seems that for this next generation, asking questions may be only the first part of what it means to be a scientist. Now students are driven to deliver that knowledge and information efficiently to those who can use it to affect change.

Addressing and mitigating the world’s crises is certainly going to take a lot of creative, inspired thinking by practitioners who can think across fields and disciplines, that understand the languages of science, conservation, management, and policy formation. It’s clear to me that the students and young professionals rising the ranks now will be those creative thinkers, poised to think holistically and and globally. For those of you who wish to work at this leading edge of science and solutions, I encourage you to seek out experiences that will take you out of your comfort zone and place you into new habitats and new hallways. If each professional scientist had worked for a year in policy and each policy maker had spent some months in a lab past high school chemistry, I would guess that science policy would look a lot different today.

For so long, we’ve thought about environmental conservation as saving animals and ecosystems. Really, conservation is entirely about people. It’s about changing people’s behavior – individuals, countries, or corporations.  Simultaneously, we wish to believe science is completely objective when in fact science is conducted by people and thus it is never truly objective. For both these reasons, it’s incredibly important for scientists and conservation practitioners and policy makers to be diverse groups of people. From the roots of the process – the questions that are asked – to the implementation and adoption of new policies and practices, the results are shaped by those that drive them. These steps must be carried about by people who bring different perspectives to the process, who have had different experiences that shaped their views, who know different parts of the problem and the solution and the people who are impacted by them. As with so many conversations our country is having these last few weeks, the importance of diversity is paramount. Science and policy are fields dominated by white men. According to this NSF study, 67% of all scientists and engineers are white. If it’s mostly white men asking questions, the answers are also mostly going to impact white men. Diversity in science matters, diversity in policy making matters, and diversity in training matters.

The Arctic is a hallmark region for the co-dependence of science and policy and the pivotal need for diverse racial and cultural representation. The rapid pace of environmental change, the international landscape, and the dramatic shift of the very substance of the system from ice to ocean make it hard to disentangle research from policy. There are 8 countries and over 40 different groups of Indigenous People within the Arctic region, encompassing a great diversity of cultural and historical backgrounds. Many frameworks and governing bodies already exist that bring residents, scientists, and policy makers to the same tables. These would continue to be strengthened and improved by the next generation of Arctic practitioners that are committed to gaining experience working on the other side of the science-to-policy pipeline, refining their translation skills, and championing diversity at every step of the process.


Dr. Alyson Fleming is an Assistant Professor in the department of Biology and Marine Biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her research focuses on marine mammals and explores methods for studying their responses to ecological and global change. Before joining the faculty at UNCW, Alyson was a James Smithson Fellow at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow in the US Department of State. She received her PhD from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

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