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Your First Steps on the Path toward Science Policy by Max Showalter

Policy is rarely far-removed from our lives as polar scientists; from climate change to food-web dynamics, cryosphere research touches hot topics in global science and technology policy. However, identifying the clearest path toward science policy can be a challenge. As I struggled to find that path throughout my PhD, I received two pieces of advice that I found to be useful along the way.


Focus on communication skills.

While scientists often host a range of transferable skills relevant to the policy world, none is as important as effective communication. In preparing my own applications for science policy fellowships, I spoke with every lab-to-legislature professional that would answer my phone calls and found that they all agreed: above all else, they cited communication training as the most important skill for success in science policy.


Both written and spoken communication skills are important in the policy process, where scientists are expected not only to translate complex topics for legislators and government officials, but also often hear community concerns. An ability for two-way communication with diverse audiences about complex scientific topics is therefore useful at any level of involvement in science policy. In my own experience, I have been able to practice these communication skills by following a simple mantra: say yes to everything. Yes to every opportunity for volunteer science writing, yes to every talk, lecture, and even satirical oceanography-themed zine that came my way. When opportunities don’t present themselves, find a science blog you like to read and pitch a few topics to the editors, or simply start your own. Foremost, I found that identifying as someone invested in ‘scicomm’ is a rolling snowball – every piece of work you do builds toward the next and helps place you at the top of contact lists when new opportunities arise. Whatever the context, practice communicating with diverse audiences of varying technical backgrounds will help build this fundamental science policy skill.

Build connections.

In the HBO series Veep, Selina Meyer comically repeats the simplistic mantra “politics is about people” as she campaigns for the role of president. This is even more true in science policy. To set oneself on a direction toward policy, consider not only who can connect you to opportunities, but also who is affected by your science. 

For my own research, I wasn’t sure where to begin. I didn’t know many natural scientists working in Arctic science policy, and there are few obvious connections between bacteriophage in sea ice and important policy issues. I jumped to the most important instrument in my toolbox – building human connections. For me, that meant leveraging the expertise of policy researchers available at the University, reaching out to the Canadian Studies Center on campus to discuss my interest in connecting Arctic science to policy, and playing-up my interdisciplinary skills as a scientist. I found a policy mentor at the Center, and through much back-and-forth we worked toward building a project I could complete in science policy. This was a long process that fortunately began early in my academic career, taking me in directions I certainly didn’t expect to go when I began my PhD. Among them, I started studying Inuktitut, one of the principal Inuit languages of Canada, which helped me build a deeper understanding of how Arctic science could affect human lives through policy.  

With input from my mentor and a human-centered focus from Inuktitut language study, I was able to develop a dissertation chapter aimed at understanding the Inuit influence on sea ice policy in Canada. While this project doesn’t explicitly tie into my work in microbiology, it helped me make connections to policy researchers and the “stakeholders” of Arctic science policy, and taught me that when working toward a new goal, a broad trajectory is the far more flexible choice than precision aim.

A number of fellowships focused on science and technology policy are available in the United States to help scientists move into the world of policy (for example, the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, California’s Science and Technology Policy Fellows program and other State-level programs, the National Academy’s Gulf Science Policy Fellowship program, and more). While much of the work in these programs may not be polar-focused, they represent an opportunity to build skills in addition to those listed above which will help you visualize the right path for you.

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Photo courtesy of Max Showalter

Max Showalter is a PhD candidate at the University of Washington in Oceanography. His interests focus on bacteria and their viruses in Arctic sea ice - an environment of extreme temperatures, salinities, and light and nutrient restrictions. Also in the Astrobiology program at UW, he's curious how understanding microbial adaptations to life under terrestrial extremes can help inform the search for life on cold bodies in our solar system and beyond. He works in the Deming Lab, doing experiments and computations in the lab as well as regular field work to the Arctic and Antarctic.

In addition to scientific research, he has an interest in science for both public policy and outreach. He likes to think about environmental security in the Arctic and how scientific research can inform decision making on international scales. For this work, he has taken on the study of Inuktitut - one of the principal Inuit languages of Canada - to understand the context of the people and environment in which Arctic research is performed. His science communication focuses on human elements of research and discovery in written form and regular outreach events.

You can connect with him or read more about his work at gmshowalter.com or on Twitter @gshowalt

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