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

KRLips

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).

2013 Fellows: What We’re Thankful For

BenRaanan_Oct2013ThesisMessageBox

Ben Ra’anan, M.S. student at Moss landing Marine Laboratories, San Jose State University, presenting his first stab at his thesis research message box during a lab meeting this fall.

Note from Pam: In the spirt of the holidays, I asked our 2013 fellows what they were thankful for from their Leopold experience — a tool or skill from their core training, an insight that has stuck, a new time-saving practice, or anything else that has stood out. Erika McPhee-Shaw starts off the conversation here.

The Leopold training helps me every single day and it would be hard to overstate how thankful I am for all that you have given us. One of the most important insights I have carried with me since the summer training is the newly clear understanding that networking is the very best way to solve many problems. I am a natural networker, one of those types who likes talking to other people and making connections. But as a scientist coming from a physics/engineering academic home, I have always felt a bit of pressure against working as a “networker.” Instead, I often felt that the only valued approach to problem solving was elegant theoretical work. The brilliant-mathematician-toiling-alone-in-a-closed-room type concept. This summer’s Leopold training shattered that wacky notion completely and gave me the confidence to know I am doing it just right by sitting down to map a network and get on the phone!

The message box training has also been incredibly valuable, and it is something I have been using throughout this semester with my own graduate students. Each student must write a proposal for their MS thesis research, and I have been working with our lab group to have each student write out the message box for their thesis ideas. This is an exciting time for them to do this exercise because they are only in the initial stages of their research. This work clarifies their goals, and I have been so proud to hear them explain their work to visiting scientists or other professors — they do such a great job and are so confident that their science is valuable and useful.

Erika McPhee-Shaw, a coastal geographer, is an Associate Professor at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, San Jose State University and a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow.