Prof. encourages science students to educate public
In light of potential federal funding cuts to science research and the public’s mistrust of science in climate change, disease and energy issues, the Brandeis Science Policy Initiative had Prof. James Haber (BIOL) hold a discussion on Thursday about how scientists can help inform the public and encourage policy makers to support research funding.
Haber, director of the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center, advised the audience of graduate and postdoctoral students to get involved not only with their respective scientific societies but also with their local politicians.
“There are all sorts of issues about public trust in science, and one whole area of activity is on the part of scientists to explain themselves to non-scientists,” said Haber, “which of course you can start doing to people over Thanksgiving dinner.”
He first advised science students to join their respective scientific societies under student memberships, to both stay up to date through newsletters and to get involved with policy subcommittees trying to demonstrate to Congress the value of research and science.
Overarching societies Haber mentioned include the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a leader in science policy which publishes the magazine Science, and Science News, a bi-weekly magazine devoted to short articles about new scientific and technical developments.
For more advocacy-oriented groups, Haber recommended the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists and the March on Science, an organization Haber said is fascinating for the fact that “there are almost no people with gray hair running it.”
The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology provides an advocacy toolkit online and also runs Capitol Hill Day, a day in which scientists are funded to meet with their congresspeople. During these Capitol Hill Days, individuals or a “group of Brandeis students” could organize to visit local offices, said Haber.
Other organizations with policy subgroups, such as Research America, the American Society for Cell Biology, the Genetic Society of America, the Society of Neuroscience and the Coalition for the Life Sciences were also mentioned. These societies are important, Haber said, to network with people who have the connections and resources to best influence policy makers.
However, even independently, “senators and your congresspeople are really worth communicating with even when you know that they are on your side, because numbers count,” he added. The ASCB has a website with letter templates to congresspeople in which “all you have to do is press a button.”
Haber spoke about his involvement in organizing the longest-running science cafe in the country, the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus. Now in its 27th year, the caucus invites eight to 10 people a year to talk to Congress about their research work.
“We try to find subjects that are not only scientifically important, but also have some important to the concerns of congress — medical, behavioral, developmental, cognitive subjects,” the health issues that the public worry about most.
Particularly for biomedical research, Haber said it is important for a young generation of scientists to get involved in order to prevent the National Institutes of Health research funding from falling further. From 2003 to 2015, the NIH lost 22 percent of its capacity to fund research due to budget cuts, sequestration and inflationary losses, according to FASEB’s website.
It is important to become aware of movements of public mistrust in science, said Haber, who gave examples of the initiative against vaccines and the public’s slow acceptance of the issue of air pollution.
He recommended that students start a discussion with their neighbors with a jargon-free elevator speech about their work that is two minutes, one minute or even seven words long. “My seven word one is ‘How your cells fix their broken chromosomes,’” Haber said.
There’s a vacuum in how scientists get information to people who mistrust science and are in some cases being lobbied to mistrust this information, said Haber, adding, “That’s a big, hard issue.”
“All I can say is, in your own circle, start locally, and expand the circle of convinced people. … Tell them what you do. And tell them why you do it,” Haber said.
The BSPI is a graduate student organization providing on-campus opportunities for education in science policy through seminars and activities.