Showing Scientists How to Play a Part in Policy


Carolyn Bartholomew, a visiting professor at AUNE and a former
senior staff to U.S. House of Rep. Nancy Pelosi; Abigail Abrash
Walton, AUNE’s assistant to the president for sustainability/social
justice; Angela Sottile-Fowler, ’95, an AUNE alumna who attended
the workshop; and Michael Simpson, chair of AUNE’s Department
of Environmental Studies.

It’s time for scientists and researchers to venture outside academic walls and into the policy maker’s office, says Abigail Abrash Walton, AUNE’s assistant to the president for sustainability/social justice. A January 17 workshop, Translating Research into Policy: How to Participate Effectively in the Policy Process, in Washington, D.C., helped researchers practice how to do that.

Building on AUNE’s track record of practitioner-oriented adult education and the advocacy track within the Environmental Studies master’s program, Walton and other AUNE faculty organized the introductory workshop to translate AUNE’s own institutional commitment to a more sustainable society into effective action.

“It’s part of the social contract that scientists share their findings as part of the public policy process,” Walton said. “If you’re a scientist and not in the game, policy fails to benefit from your expertise and someone else will step in to fill the vacuum. Why not share your expert perspective?”

Brian Helmuth, director of the Environment and Sustainability Program at the University of South Carolina, participated. “What impressed me about the workshop was the essential elements that they managed to pack into a one-day workshop,” he said. “We heard from people with experience working on The Hill as well as from scientists with experience working with legislators.”

The Faculty; the Goals
Thirty-five participants signed up for the workshop, which preceded the three-day National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment: Environment and Security. Walton organized and taught the workshop, along with Carolyn Bartholomew, a visiting professor at AUNE and a former senior staff to U.S. House of Rep. Nancy Pelosi; and David Blockstein, senior scientist and director of education for the National Council for Science and the Environment.

One goal of the workshop was to build the capacity of academics to translate their research into public policy and learn where they can do so, Walton said.

In a role-playing exercise, the scientists practiced conducting an effective meeting with a policymaker. “Experience and research show that personal contact between a policymaker and the researcher is the most effective way to get the point across,” Walton said. “We taught basic skills: be accurate, brief, and courteous.”
“It was the brief part that people struggled with. Realistically, you’ll get five to ten minutes with a member of Congress or their staff, twenty if you’re lucky.”

The participants also learned about communicating across differences. “Researchers are used to a certain form of communication and vocabulary,” Walton said. “But they can reframe their expertise in ways that policymakers can understand, respond to and incorporate into public policy.”

“All scientists, whether they conduct basic or applied research, need to recognize that science never exists in a vacuum,” Helmuth said. “Our work should be relevant to society in some manner, as it is society that ultimately is paying the bills.”

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