The Woods Institute Science & Policy Seminar

By Tamara Fetters

Good science and good policy should go hand-in-hand, yet the path from collecting data to constructing policy can seem nebulous and abstract. Many scientists find themselves wondering: What is the role of science in the decision-making process? How does our science impact policy?

This past week, scientists in the Interfaces of Global Change Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program (IGC IGEP) set off for Capitol Hill to address these questions and to gain a better understanding of the process by which science informs policy. In a 3-day workshop led by Patricia Woods of the Woods Institute, students explored the legislative and budget formulation processes, observed contentious hearings on global change issues, and engaged with members of the House of Representatives, governmental agencies, lobbyist groups, scholars, and Congressional staffers.

Students sat in on a House hearing of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee where the Environmental Protection Agency’s new ozone regulations were being hotly debated. During the hearing, Representatives on the committee expressed their views on the new regulations and questioned a panel of experts on the topic.

“It was interesting and useful to see the way these scientists communicated scientific evidence to a non-scientific audience, and how differences in values among congressional committee members influenced the questions they asked witnesses,” IGC IGEP fellow Cathy Jackowski commented.

Students also met with a wide spectrum of professionals engaged in integrating science and policy, among them Don Hellmann, the Assistant Director of Legislative and Congressional Affairs for the National Parks Service, Dr. Lynn Corn of the Congressional Research Service, Congress’s in-house think tank, and Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club, an influential grassroots environmental organization. They also met with Congressional staffers Joseph Majkut, an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellow, and Maya Hermann, who has served as a staffer in both the House of Representatives and the Senate for almost a decade. These meetings were very informative to students as they highlighted alternative and influential career paths.

“The trip opened my eyes to other career possibilities, specifically careers that could shape science policy,” IGC IGEP fellow Laura Schoenle remarked. “We met a senator’s staffer who was a AAAS fellow who spoke about his current and future career and outlined opportunities I hadn’t been considering.”

Science Communication

Students in the IGC IGEP have spent the last two years tackling burgeoning topics at the interface of science and policy. This trip, part of the program’s capstone course, served as a culmination of these experiences.

One of the issues that the IGC IGEP focuses on is communicating science to non-scientists and policy makers. IGC IGEP fellow Jen Wagner commented on the value of conversing in person with policy makers who may not have a science background, saying, “We have been talking about science communication a lot and it was really interesting to hear from policy maker staff about what works best for them.  This reiterated our need to be aware of the challenges that they face and work to provide them with material that they can work with.”

Resonating with Prior Experiences

Many students drew connections between their study of scientific denialism, a topic covered at great length in the IGC IGEP, and their experiences on the Hill. Fellows enrolled in the IGC capstone course previously read and discussed Merchants of Doubt, a book co-authored by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, and additionally got to speak with Dr. Oreskes when the Global Change Center hosted her for a public lecture the fall of 2015. The theme of the book is the manufacturing of scientific denial and disinformation to intentionally mislead the public regarding scientific issues, such as tobacco, acid rain, ozone, and climate change.

IGC IGEP fellow Heather Govenor attended the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing and described how Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D Texas) cautioned the audience of these tactics in her opening statement, saying “she made reference to the tactics of the Tobacco Industry, quoting industry documents proclaiming ‘Doubt is our product.’ Representative Johnson likened those tactics to those being used regarding other environmental issues such as the ozone standard, predicting that her colleagues would “attempt to raise doubts about the scientific evidence,” that “these kinds of tactics have been used before”, and that “Americans are not fooled by these tactics anymore.'”

Beyond Boundaries

Students departed from DC with an increased understanding of governmental processes, and the various ways in which scientists and policymakers interact. President Timothy Sands recently introduced a university-wide initiative Beyond Boundaries, a one-year visioning process that will prepare the university and its graduates to address complex problems of regional, national, and global scales. This trip aligned with the goals of the President’s vision, as students prepared to use their research and training to solve global problems in an ever-changing world.

IGC IGEP faculty member Dr. Jeff Walters (BIOL) expressed his thoughts on the experience saying, “Students learned firsthand how science plays into policy at the highest levels of government, and what they observed resonated with their prior training and experiences in the IGC program in ways that enabled them to achieve a deep understanding.  They saw clearly the avenues available for bringing the best available science into decision-making, avenues they could imagine themselves using.  The students left DC much more optimistic about the role of science in determining policy than when they arrived. “

Members of the IGC IGEP look forward to continued reflections on their trip as they finish up their capstone course this fall.


Tamara Fetters
As a Ph.D. candidate in Biological Sciences and an IGC fellow, Tamara is studying the brown anole and the effects that threats such as disease, climate change, and introduction have on the anole’s physiology and ecology. Her long-term goal is to work with other scientists and policymakers to recognize and manage these global threats.