What We Talk About When We Talk About Engaging

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Cartoon by Carole Levy, commissioned by Andy Hoffman, on redefining academic success to include “stepping out of the ivory tower” to inform important national discussions on topics like climate change and GMOs.

In mid May I had the good fortune to attend a three-day meeting at the University of Michigan that was co-organized by Leopold Leadership Fellow Andy Hoffman on “academic engagement in public and political discourse”. My interest was piqued by an article that Andy circulated in early February (“Isolated Scholars: Making Bricks, Not Shaping Policy”). I’m very glad that I went. Other Leopold Leadership Fellows present were Joe Arvai, David Hart, and Dawn Wright. I think that what transpired at the meeting validates what many of us are doing in a very powerful way, and so I wanted to share some of what I learned and heard.

You might be interested in several articles that highlight various meeting discussion threads: “Presidents Agree Engagement Is Part of Academics’ Obligation to Society,” “What to Expect When You’re Engaging: Tips for Academic Outreach,” “American Universities: Reclaiming Our Role in Society,” and “Can We Talk?”

Below are some of the key points that resonated with me from presentations, panelists and discussions that I tweeted about. I’ve added italicized notes in brackets to help clarify the context of the character-limited tweet. If you’re interested in reading more tweets, all that were tweeted during the meeting can be found on Twitter at #AcadEng. At the end of this post, you’ll find a meeting summary.

Tweets:

  • Engagement is boundary work- a messy space. Need to put thought into how to navigate it. Think about our own personal values sets. [Our value sets inform who we think is credible, e.g., Carl Sagan vs. Dr. Oz. Need to grapple with how we work with each other in terms of being civil and supportive. Need to have stronger collaborative projects with natural and social scientists.]
  • via Susan Collins: should consider working collaboratively in the public/political engagement space rather than being competitive
  • via @DavidScobey need to shift away from intellectual hierarchy @ universities & create an inclusive intellectually generous faculty [“Participate more in inter-institutional and consortial institutions, e.g., Imaging America, and leverage faculty change to undo intellectual hierarchy” David Scobey]
  • RT via @NeilLewisJr “The problem is not the audience, the problem is us.”
  • via @DavidScobey participatory engagement: think abt how to work w/ people w/whom we share a common fate but not common experiences
  • How to broaden diversity of who we’re engaging with? via @RogerPielkeJr Need to be willing to go against the grain of what’s easy [“Engagement is highly politicized and hence polarized- need to not run from the polarization but rather learn how to be at the boundary” Dietram Scheufele. “The goal of politics is not to get everyone to think alike, the goal of politics is to get people who think differently to act alike to get those with differing opinions to know that shared action is possible” Roger Pielke.]
  • via @RogerPielkeJr: Be clear abt your goal for engagement shouldn’t do it to impose our view on others but rather to open up the discussion […to learn more and create a collective vision]
  • via @Nancy Baron: To effectively engage, show your passion- not only the what/how but also the WHY. People will pay attention [‘Those that show their passion are actually the most effective at engagement. “Tell a story, stories are data with a soul” Nancy Baron]
  • via Jane Lubchenco ‘scientists must be bilingual’- to be able to both speak to scientists and to translate this info to the general public [Academic engagement “requires a 2-way communication with society- with transparency and humility” Jane Lubchenco]
  • via H. Pollack: you’ve got to have content, & to coin #LeopoldLP lessons learned, “you’ve got to know thy stuff!” [“Evaluate where you are (wrt engagement) and pivot. Don’t engage with the bad experiences. Cut your losses and move on” and put your energy into engaging with positive experiences. Henry Pollack]

And, last but not least as tweeted by Dawn Wright:

  • via @deepseadawn As one of the peeps in the @LeopoldLP & @COMPASSonline universe, I am SO PROUD of @HoffmanAndy! #AcadEng

Meeting Summary

There were 2 keynotes, one to kick off the meeting, by Jane Lubchenco (Oregon State & Former NOAA Administrator) and the other to close it, by Richard Alley (Penn State). The rest of the time was devoted to a series of panel discussions and breakouts organized with the goal of stimulating a dialogue on specific issues related to academics and public/political engagement, some of which were:

  • Why should academics engage in public & political discourse?
  • What do we mean by public and political engagement?
  • How do we practice public and political engagement?
    • What are some guidelines?
    • How does one pursue an academic career that includes public and political engagement
    • What should be the role of academics in public/political discourse?
  • What are the obstacles for academics with public and political engagement?

The organizational structure and the intentional diversity of career tracks, academic disciplines, and career stages of attendees set the stage for some really interesting and stimulating discussions. Most attendees were from academia but there was also very good representation from boundary organizations, the media and some from the private sector. For those from academia, 43 different disciplines were represented spanning the physical and social sciences, humanities, and professions. Attendees came from the University of Michigan as well as from several colleges and universities from around the country and Canada. Impressive too was that that almost 30% of the academic attendees were PhD students: these are the people who represent the future of academia and so are critical to the dialogue.

A big thanks to Andy Hoffman, Andrew Maynard and the other Michigan Meeting Steering Committee members and organizers for helping to put this all together and for getting such a broad collective of academic wheels turning. A job very well done!!

Summary slide presented by Richard Alley in his MI Meeting keynote presentation ‘Good, Bad and Maybe:  Communicating Scientific Near-Certainties and Deep-Uncertainties to a Non-Scientific Audience’. His presentation exemplified how not only to engage with non-scientists but with scientists and other academics as well.   A very positive keynote- there’s hope!

Summary slide from Richard Alley’s keynote presentation,”‘Good, Bad and Maybe: Communicating Scientific Near-Certainties and Deep-Uncertainties to a Non-Scientific Audience”.

Jennifer Cherrier is an Associate Professor in the School of Environment at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. In August 2015 she will become an Associate Professor in the Earth & Environmental Sciences Department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

12 Things to Know about Working in the International Sustainability Arena

Tip #1: To meet leaders working on sustainability issues from different perspectives, attend the conference of an international cross-sector organization, suggests Katherine Sierra, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Global Economy and Development Program who spoke at our Leopold advanced training “Navigating the International Sustainability Arena.”

If you’re a researcher in sustainability science, and you want to make your research used and useful in solving sustainability challenges internationally, how do you engage? “The world is wide,” as the saying goes. How do you identify partners and determine where you can have the most impact?

The Leopold Leadership Program recently held an advanced training in Washington, D.C. to help participants answer these questions. All were academic researchers seeking to integrate their science into practice internationally.

During the two-and-a-half-day workshop, the group got an overview of the international sustainability arena through the lens of two organizations: the World Bank, which was the subject of a keynote by Katherine Sierra, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and the Global Environment Facility, which was the focus of a panel moderated by Tom Hammond, Secretary of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel for GEF. As happens with all Leopold trainings, participants immediately had the chance to put what they learned into practice. In this case, they interviewed professionals working at international organizations on their issue of interest to learn more about their work.

To prepare, the group first did a series of “speed interviews” during an afternoon session. Working in pairs, they had an hour to develop questions. They then used them in 12-minute interviews with volunteers from the World Bank, the Pew Charitable Trust, Climate Advisers, and the World Wildlife Fund. The goal was to learn as much as possible in a short time about the international sustainability arena. Armed with an understanding of which questions work best, they spent the following day visiting international organizations and doing their one-on-one interviews.

In their debrief, the workshop participants spoke about the power of informational interviews for building relationships to advance the work of solving sustainability challenges. “Aims to influence policy start with a real desire and ability to listen to policy- and decision-makers, rather than always providing information and thinking that ‘they will come,’” said Marc Jeuland, a workshop participant and faculty member in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

Here are 10 other tips:

Marc Jeuland: “In the context of making connections, I learned how critical it is to tailor even a two-sentence introduction to be most relevant to the person and purpose at hand. I used to think that such clarity could come from subsequent conversations, but this workshop and the substantial practice interacting with others (in small groups, mock interviews, and then with my own scheduled interviews) really drove home the point that first impressions are very critical if one wants to maximize impact.”

Jill Caviglia-Harris: “I learned that the silos that we talk about in academia also exist in the international policy world… and that breaking into this new arena requires reaching out, building long-term relationships, and co-developing questions that can be addressed with research findings.”

Karen Holl: “I learned an immense amount about the goals and workings of several intergovernmental organizations, and how I could most effectively collaborate with them. As a result of one of my meetings, I was invited to participate in workshop in May to discuss forest restoration and monitoring with various countries participating in the Initiative 20×20, which aims to restore 20 million hectares of tropical forest in Latin America by 2020.”

Kevin Krizek: “If you’re asking for an informational interview with someone, include the name of the person who referred you in the subject of your email. This strategy works for getting a response, and I’ve begun teaching it to my students.”

And:

“There are amazing efforts out there aiming to make the world a better and more environmentally humane place. These international agencies need different types of information from scientists and researchers at different points in various initiatives. A key challenge is finding out — and then delivering — the right info at the right time.”

Max Boykoff: “I found discussions surrounding our ‘theories of change’ very enlightening, in appreciating how we can chart different pathways to effective change in the international sustainability arena. My colleagues’ varied perspectives helped me to reflect on how to prioritize and plan my contributions going forward.”

Marco Janssen: “When I asked about the challenges they experience, representatives from the various international NGOs voiced the same message: ‘No more individual case studies, how can we scale up?’

Jennifer Cherrier: “All my interviewees reinforced the power of collective approaches for creating change that I learned in my Leopold training. I was reminded of the need to focus on your niche and work toward a series of ‘small victories’ (‘shrink the change‘) rather than trying to hit it out of the ball park. In all of this, doing your homework is key — you have to ‘know thy stuff’ and enough of your interviewees’ and collaborators’ stuff to effectively cross borders. Finally, be realistic with time constraints when you interview for information and plan accordingly.”

Margaret Krebs, Leopold program designer and training co-facilitator: “The rules of engagement are different for the international arena than they are for other spheres of sustainability work. Cultural differences are in play, and you need to respect and work with them.”

And:

Who you know matters. This training was possible because Leopold fellows and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment shared their networks to identify people who could advise us about the workshop content and matching participants with representatives of organizations to interview. Thanks to Josh Tewksbury, Lea RosenbohmEd Barbier, Ruth DeFries, and Rashid Sumaila for their help in this regard!”

Pam Sturner is the executive director of the Leopold Leadership Program.

Applying Scientific Thinking to Decision-Making

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Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team member Karina Nielsen has found that working across the science-policy boundary requires a shift in mindset about one’s role as a scientist.

Note from Pam: Over the next several months, scientists from the Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team will be blogging at OceanSpaces about how science gets linked with decision-making. We’ll be republishing some of their advice and reflections here on LL3.0.

Scientists are inherently curious about how nature works. We enjoy applying creativity and logic in the pursuit of answers to challenging questions. We like thinking hard about how to solve a difficult puzzle, and we enjoy finding a solution. Many of us also hope that the knowledge we generate will ultimately be useful. In our scientific publications, we often point out that there are “policy” or “management” implications associated with the results. And then we think our work as scientists is done. We often assume decision-makers will seek and find the breadcrumbs we’ve left behind to create effective solutions to environmental problems. And we are often dismayed when they don’t.

Building strong bridges across the science-policy boundary involves more than simply pointing decision-makers to the most recent scientific findings. From serving on the Marine Life Protection Act Science Advisory Team to the Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team (OPC-SAT), and participating in focused workshops like a recent one on ecosystem health assessments, I have found working with fellow scientists to help managers and policymakers grapple with complex environmental issues just as challenging and rewarding as doing basic scientific research.

Most recently, I was involved in an OPC-SAT workshop focused on exploring Ocean Health as a Scientific Concept and Management Goal. The idea of ocean (or ecosystem) health as a metaphor for the condition or status of an ecosystem is not new. It has been part of the environmental science lexicon for decades and is now embedded into the environmental policy landscape. Yet despite its common sense and intuitive appeal, there are no generally accepted ways to measure it. Through my work with scientists, managers and policymakers on this and other science policy questions, I’ve learned a few things that other scientists may find useful as they stretch to span the science-policy boundary.

1. Take A New Approach to Engaging with Decision-makers

To span the science policy boundary, we are not being asked to be scientists for the government. Rather, we are being asked to bring our scientific way of thinking to the management and policy table. We have so much to offer beyond our own areas of expertise, because what is useful is not limited to what we each know, or the particular data sets we’ve personally collected and interpreted. It’s also how we’ve been trained to think. In other words, using evidence and applying logic to arrive at sound inferences, including identifying areas of uncertainty can be extremely valuable in helping decision-makers find tractable solutions to problems.

2. Be Willing to Co-develop Projects

Scientists can benefit immensely from collaborating with policymakers and managers. Often we start with a scientific question or problem in our field, design and complete a research project, and then reach out to the decision-makers who we think might benefit from our new findings. What if instead we engaged decision-makers from the beginning?

As scientists, we’re keenly aware of the gaps in our field. But being able to hone in on those gaps that inhibit potentially beneficial and important policy action is not something easily done from the ivory tower, the research lab or the field site. As a result there are often mismatches between what scientists think decision-makers need to know, and the information they are in fact desperately seeking. Identifying the critical knowledge gaps to fill, and/or finding focused, nuanced applications of existing knowledge are important emergent benefits of greater crosstalk and collaboration with decision-makers.

3. Look to Existing Models for Engagement (such as Marine Protected Areas)

I am very encouraged by the Ocean Protection Council’s emerging effort, Healthy Ocean California. The purpose of this effort is to make a long-term reality out of what so many of us have been working toward sustaining for a long time: a healthy, productive ocean. We’re asking the question: Can the concept of ocean health unify us for better science, policy and management?

I believe it can. It starts with California’s network of marine protected areas (MPAs). They’re the backbone of a grand experiment and observational network we can use to understand the consequences and tradeoffs of different policy decisions. The management and monitoring of these MPAs form an important foundation we can use for science-informed decision-making on issues that span management jurisdictions—water quality, fisheries, climate change, and more. The MPAs give us structure for an iterative, adaptive process that will allow us to learn and improve as we go. We can use the network and how it changes over time, under different conditions and in comparison to areas outside the network, as we would an experiment to provide critical tests and contribute to building scientific theory. We built this network, we’ve applied management decisions, we’ve set up monitoring, and now we can start using the results to improve our understanding of ocean health, and how to sustain it.

4. Broaden the Community of Scientists Engaged

We need to keep working to broaden the community of scientists who are active in the policy and management process. We also need to expand the pool of scientific information that scientists and decision-makers can draw from, including academic knowledge, traditional knowledge, citizen science, and local expertise. Examining multiple lines of evidence from different sources to test assumptions and answer questions is an important aspect of scientific thinking.

The boundary between science and decision-making is a fuzzy one. We never have all the information we would like. There is always uncertainty we wish we could reduce. We know that if we only had more time, more resources, and more data we could provide a more robust answer. But managers and policymakers are most often charged with making decisions in the here and now with the information that is currently available. Coming to a conclusion or making a decision in the face of uncertainty can be very uncomfortable for scientists. Inaction can be equally uncomfortable or even impossible for the policymakers and managers charged with tackling environmental challenges. This is the “fuzziness” that can make boundary-spanning feel uncomfortable or even a little scary. But to make science and scientific thinking useful and accessible to decision-makers, to have impact, to actually have science-informed policy, or at least to have science at the table when decisions are being made, we must be willing to stretch outside our traditional disciplinary comfort zones.

As they say sometimes, “If you’re not a little bit uncomfortable, you’re not growing.” It’s not just about ecology, or climate science, or fisheries; and it’s not about being 100% certain about our conclusions before we help inform policy. It’s about to bringing a diversity of scientists, scientific information and scientific disciplines together to work adaptively and iteratively with decision-makers to find the best possible answers to the questions we have about California’s ocean health, something that is important to everyone.

Other blogs in the “Perspectives from the OPC-SAT” series: Introduction to the Series; and Part I: Gone with the Wind? What climate-driven changes in wind intensity means for CA’s Ocean Health.

Karina J. Nielsen is a professor of biology and director of the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies at San Francisco State University.

Affecting change on the ground: an interview with Anne Guerry of the Natural Capital Project

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To help catalyze change, scientists have to listen carefully to stakeholders and be prepared to change their approach and vision of the outcomes.

Moving science out of the ivory tower, off the pages of journals, and into the hands of conservation practitioners, regional planners, and corporate decision makers is not something most environmental scientists learned how to do in grad school. However, it is exactly what the scientists at the Natural Capital Project do day in and day out. The Natural Capital Project—NatCap for short—is a partnership among The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Stanford University, and the University of Minnesota. NatCap aims to integrate the values of nature into all major decisions affecting the environment and human well-being—with the ultimate objective of improving the state of biodiversity and human well-being by motivating greater and more cost-effective investments in both.

In a recent paper in Ecological Economics, Mary Ruckelshaus and coauthors describe NatCap’s experience using ecosystem services to inform decisions. The paper outlines over 20 decision-contexts in which NatCap and partners have worked to quantify ecosystem services, change decision-making dialogues, inform plans and policies, and affect real-world outcomes. Anne Guerry is Chief Strategy Officer and Lead Scientist for NatCap—and, in the interest of full disclosure, she is also my wife. I recently spoke with Anne (at our dinner table) about what it takes to successfully bridge the divide between science and practice.

1. What lessons did you learn about bridging the gap between science and action/policy?

We’ve found that information co-produced with decision-makers and stakeholders is much more likely to affect decisions than information just chucked over the wall. Science is never central to decision-making; you have to work hard to make it resonate. I have a slide that I use that shows our heliocentric understanding of the universe pre-Gallileo—I use the image to remind people that scientific information, though we scientists like to think otherwise—is at least a few rings out from the sun. Decisions are often made based on innumerable factors and for our science to have a prayer of being used, it needs to be salient, credible, and legitimate (see David Cash’s work on this theme).

You have to be a good listener. Real decision contexts provide really interesting scientific questions: you just have to listen and be willing to let your work be shaped by those grappling with hard questions. If you’ve been a good listener at the beginning and throughout the process, you’ll be much more likely to find good listeners in your audience at the end of the process—because you’ll be talking about things that matter to them.

Real personal relationships and real time together makes things happen. In a lot of NatCap’s work, we’ve gotten deeply engaged with our partners on the ground. For example, in our work on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, our team logged many, many hours in stakeholder meetings, in trainings, in board meetings, on Skype, in conference calls, and simply working together in the same physical space. This allowed our team to have a real understanding of the decision context we were working to inform—and for our partners to have a real understanding of what we could bring to the table. The same has been true for our work on water funds in Latin America, our coastal planning work in Belize, and for many of our other projects. However, we can’t scale up this intensive work. A better, more sustainable model involves putting our tools and approaches in the hands of others who can take real ownership of the work and not need significant outside help. Then those real personal relationships and real time together still matter—but the science is done internally, enabled by credible science and accessible tools.

2. What kind of person does it take to bridge the gap?

You need an open mind. One size doesn’t fit all, so you have to be ready to adapt your science and tools to be relevant to the questions at hand. This means that we need creative people who can come up with new solutions and different approaches. Also, for those who will work with stakeholders and decision-makers, it is critical to have people who are personable. You are going to need to build trust and that’s unlikely, if not impossible, if you can’t connect with people.

Also, we’ve seen that you either need jacks-of-all-trades (people who are capable scientists, good modelers, decent GIS analysts, creative data hounds, clever big-picture thinkers, and likeable) or you need a diverse team that ranges from the technical experts to the big-picture people. Of course, it also helps to have people with some experience in the wild and wooly world of using science to inform decisions.

What you do NOT need are big egos – Trying to inject some science into decision-making is about politics, stakeholders, and decision-makers. It is so not about you or your science. It is about their process, their decisions. You are there to help them. You may get no credit, your work may be very much behind the scenes, and you need to be comfortable with that.

3. How did you link-up with different stakeholder groups?

There are a lot of different ways that we get connected with different decision-making processes. In many cases, we work through our NGO partners (TNC and WWF) in their priority projects and regions. Some examples include our work on setting up water funds in Latin America (with TNC) and our work on creating an integrated coastal zone management plan in Belize (with WWF). In other cases, we have received a grant to do research with an applied component and have included a scoping phase in the project during which we’ve found an on-the-ground partner interested in applying the new science and tools in local decisions. Also, people come to us and ask for help; in those cases we have an “applications team” that uses various criteria to decide whether or not such work might be a good fit.

4. What lessons have you learned about working with stakeholders and practitioners?

The science is critical, but it is a very small part of the decision-making process. We’ve learned to be more realistic about the ways in which science gets used in decisions. Sometimes we’ve seen different kinds of “success” than we initial envisioned. Although we may start out with the ultimate objective of improving outcomes for people and the environment on which they depend, we have learned to recognize interim successes along the way. These include producing and publishing results from our analyses, changing dialogues, and seeing an imprint of our work in plans and policies.

Also, as we talked about earlier, it is really important to co-produce information for maximum relevance. This means you’ve got to listen carefully and be ready to change your approach and vision of outcomes to match their needs.

5. Do you have any parting words of wisdom for those of us trying to more effectively use science to effect meaningful change?

This is where the real magic happens. It is hard work. And it takes practice. But it is extremely rewarding to see your work actually making a difference. If this sounds appealing to you, roll up your sleeves and find ways to get engaged with real decisions. The world needs you.

Josh Lawler, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. Follow him on the web and on Twitter @jjjlawler.

Beyond “More Data Are Needed”: How Scientists Can Participate in the Policy Process

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Karen Lips admiring a red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber). A new chytrid fungus of salamanders has recently been discovered in Europe; infected imports of pet salamanders could threaten US salamander diversity. (photo: Carly Muletz)

How exactly do you do policy? That was my question when I applied for the Leopold Advanced Training session on Hitting the Policy Mark last August. I signed up because I wanted to learn more about the policy process and how it might offer practical tools to reduce the loss of amphibians from invasive pathogens. While a graduate student and later as an assistant professor I had observed disease epidemics pass through several of my research sites and wipe out the amphibians. We had no idea of how to stop this disease, where it came from, or much about its biology. What we did know is that this microscopic fungus was devastating amphibian populations around the world, and the loss of all those amphibians was causing problems for the animals and ecosystems that depend on them. Worst of all, we saw little evidence that this disease could be eradicated once it was established at a site.

Clearly something needed to be done to stop the spread across the globe. For example, in the U.S. a federal regulation or other policy could be designed to allow us to test live animals in trade for disease, and then prevent them from escaping into the wild to infect other populations of amphibians. After some research I was surprised to learn that while polices exist to prevent the import of diseased livestock and agricultural pests (overseen by the US Department of Agriculture) and similar policies give the Center for Disease Control authority to control the arrival of human pathogens (like Ebola); no regulations exist that allow for disease surveillance of wildlife imports or that give US Fish and Wildlife Service the power to prevent the import of diseased wildlife. That’s right – any kind of wildlife, not just amphibians. This is a problem, and one that is likely to get worse with huge numbers of wildlife species traded globally and new infectious diseases being discovered every year.

What wasn’t clear was what was needed to develop a policy to tackle this growing problem. Who was in charge of writing such a bill, or implementing such a regulation? What kind of information did they need? Where did I, a field ecologist, fit into the process? So I went to the internet. But I could find no textbooks on “Policy 101” (I looked), useful online guides (I googled that), or academic papers describing how to get involved in the policy process. I wasn’t even sure what it meant “to do policy.” What kinds of activities does that entail? How does one get involved? And what exactly do we, as scientists, have to offer that would be of any help?

With the guidance of the Leopold trainers I started digging into the issue of wildlife disease policy, talked with colleagues who worked in agencies and NGOs on policy-related wildlife issues, and met with policymakers to hear their opinions. I requested meetings with the natural resource committees in both the House and the Senate, and I participated in the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species Legislative Fly-in. NECIS arranged meetings between a group of us scientists with legislative assistants from several Congressional offices, and organized a Congressional briefing on Invasive Species, where three of us presented research related to H.R.996.

Recently, Chad English, the Director of Science Policy Outreach for COMPASS who facilitated the training, told me I’d done it! I’ve “done” policy! I talked to colleagues, got meetings with legislative staff, and have been closely connected to the ongoing policy discussions now trying to address this issue. I know lots of scientists who’d like to get more involved, but aren’t sure where to start. Here’s what I learned from this experience:

1) Leverage your networks. If you want to get more involved in policy, use your existing networks to provide openings, introductions and opportunities. In my case the Leopold Network provided the guidance and suggestions for how to start, and then I contacted my friends and colleagues who work on wildlife policy issues. Living in the DC area, and working with various agencies and conservation organizations as part of my academic position, I already knew some key people who worked on this issue. One colleague became my navigator – somebody who explained the ins and outs of the issue, identified the concerns of opposition groups, and was willing to work with me and others as part of his job. I was lucky that some of the outreach activities and academic projects I had worked on in the past reappeared in this policy context and served as important links to ongoing policy activities. Those past efforts showed my new contacts that I had established connections and previous policy experiences, and that I was serious. My scientific network was especially critical when it came time to write a 10-minute briefing; I contacted several of my old friends for the most up-to-date info, insights and opinions on the topics I didn’t know as well.

2) Clear, concise communication is important. This was true at every step of the way. When I met with committee members or when the NECIS group met with Congressional staff, it was critical that speakers provided concise but relevant comments that explained the concern, why it matters, and what, if anything could be done. These meetings were short – all were less than an hour, most were 30 minutes or less – and there was no time for rambling, tangential, or sloppy explanations. Crafting a thorough, engaging, and accessible 10-minute talk for the briefing was a great test of the communication skills I’d learned in the Leopold Leadership Program. I totally rethought how I was going to present this talk and led with a more dramatic and personal story than I would normally use in a scientific talk, because I wanted to get the audience’s attention and communicate concern about this issue. I created a storyline that related my research to the loss of our native biodiversity and highlighted the gaps in our existing policies, which allow imports of wildlife without testing for infectious diseases or pathogens. I ended with a reference to existing legislation awaiting action in both houses.

Effective communication was especially apparent at the July hearing held by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The subcommittee convened two panels of experts (one of federal scientists and one of scientists from private conservation organizations) who presented testimony on S.1153 and seven other bills. I was impressed at the brevity of the testimony – we heard introductions from several senators, testimony from four different experts, and a Q&A between the senators and experts on all eight bills and they still finished within 75 minutes! That’s because the full written testimony is entered into the congressional record, but all presentations were less than five minutes. If only faculty meetings were so efficient!

3) Know your audience. As when giving a good talk or media interview, it was important to know something about each legislator’s district and its issues, and the legislator’s background and interests to prepare for the group meetings. I used this iPhone app to read up on bill sponsorship, committee actions, committee membership, and voting records of all the legislators we visited. It was relatively easy to identify one or more invasive species that were a financial or health risk for every district or legislator. And while we scientists like to promote the ecological benefits of taking action, and the moral and ethical aspects of conserving biodiversity, the most powerful arguments were those that showed the financial burden of invasive species introductions. Every expert and senator, regardless of their position on the bills they were considering, mentioned the expected financial burdens to taxpayers and to agencies of every proposed bill, or the costs that would result from not passing such a bill. Requests for more research funding or claims that “more data are needed” won’t cut it here.

4) Work with what you’ve (already) got. At every stage in the process, it was especially helpful to be able to discuss specific legislation – in this case the companion bills H.R.996 and S.1153. Even though both bills had a low probability of becoming a law, they provided a starting point for a conversation that I tailored to fit that person’s interests. For example, in some of my meetings I discussed general issues of invasive species; in others, the usefulness of these bills in filling a regulatory gap; in still others I asked about the reasons for the lack of cosponsors or what an improved version of the bill would include.

I saw another example of this during the NECIS Fly-In, where I got to see how consultants and lobbyists worked with conservation organizations to advocate for particular legislation. I heard them discuss the political realities of invasive species legislation, which items were noncontroversial and likely to gain bipartisan support, and how new political, social or scientific developments would affect reception of the bill. It was obvious that these were ongoing discussions between colleagues that were important in sharing knowledge and finding areas of agreement where the various stakeholders might find a mutually beneficial outcome.

Final Thoughts

In the end it was clear that the legislative process, much like other forms of outreach and engagement, requires a lot of patience and persistence to build support and maintain momentum. As of July 2014 S.1153 was still in the Environment and Public Works committee awaiting mark-up for the reconvening of Congress after August Recess. Meanwhile, in July another bill was introduced in the House, H.R. 5156 that would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to identify and declare wildlife disease emergencies and to coordinate rapid response to these emergencies.” It has been referred to several subcommittees for consideration, so perhaps we will see future discussion of this issue before the end of this session. I’m not sure what the future holds for any of these bills, but I am hopeful that all this legislative activity reflects the real concern I heard regarding the risk of new wildlife diseases being imported into the US.

This was an incredibly valuable opportunity to see how the legislative process works, and also how the legislative process interacts with regulatory agencies. I learned a lot about the policy process and was encouraged that many of the skills and approaches also apply to the general issues of communication, outreach, and engagement (see also this article on what scientists need to know about policy). It took some time to meet the right people, but nothing I did required any special skills or connections. The hundreds of people I saw visiting their representatives this summer reminded me that government decisions rely on both public opinion and on science.

So how about it? Are you ready to “do policy?” It’s a good time to let your voice be heard.

Karen Lips, a 2005 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor and directs the graduate program in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology at the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter (@kwren88).