Science

Science Policy Can’t Be Simply about Science


As early-career scientists and engineers working at the intersection of science and society, we represent the next generation of leaders in science policy. Over the past four years, we have helped reshape how the scientific community engages in the political process: we marched for science and developed new organizations like the National Science Policy Network. As the 100th day of President Biden’s presidency nears, we recognize that our work has only begun. Even under administrations with greater appreciation for scientific integrity and evidence-based policymaking, the scientific community must continue working to ensure that our evolving scientific enterprise is committed to racial, economic and social equity.

Science: The Endless Frontier, a report delivered by Vannevar Bush in 1945, has defined science policy in the United States. The report jump-started a massive expansion of the government’s role in research and guided generations of scientific leaders. After 75 years of science policy under these principles, we must recognize that The Endless Frontier was developed largely by white men and shaped by a wartime innovation model primarily focused on health, economic development and national security. Despite decades of dramatic social changes, science policy has failed to keep pace. Much of science policy remains limited to advocating for scientific research funding while neglecting broader considerations about people and communities that have been historically and repeatedly marginalized.

We recognize the political dimensions of science policy and aim to redefine our field to prioritize justice and social equity. In working towards that goal, it is critical that we amplify historically underrepresented voices, including communities of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities and disabilities. Furthermore, the science policy community must create opportunities centering marginalized communities that have not always benefited from science, or have actively been harmed by it.

There is already a proven track record for incorporating societal welfare in science and science policy. For example, the Science for Social Equity program connects early-career researchers to grassroots organizations to address problems identified by a community. This model centers communities and challenges scientists to listen and learn from them, recognizing that science does not hold all of the answers. The recently proposed National Science Foundation for the Future Act would require the NSF director to consider “social and economic inequality” when selecting the agency’s focus areas, and it represents a step in the right direction. Additionally, we applaud the appointment of Alondra Nelson as deputy director for science and society for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Nelson’s focus on science and technology with the important context of social inequality is a model for the next era of science policy.

We can make science policy more equitable by holding our institutions, including professional societies and universities, accountable. We demand our organizations adopt clear, public values that advocate for evidence-based policy as well as social justice. Lasting progress cannot be achieved when we remain silent in the face of policy makers denouncing or impeding evidence-based research, or by accepting performative gestures when concrete changes are needed.

We call on our organizations to incorporate justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) considerations in all aspects of their work, including event planning. This includes ensuring there are no panels consisting only of men, providing childcare, welcoming people who are undocumented or not U.S. citizens in their programming, and adopting a commitment that hate speech will not be tolerated. Scientific societies should require that conference locations are safe and accessible for marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community. JEDI work is largely being performed by scientists of color, who need to be compensated for their monumental contributions. Finally, we advocate for “Hill Day” agendas that go beyond research funding and toward urgent issues including application of research for societal benefit and equity, sexual harassment and immigration policy.

In addition to pushing for structural changes, scientists and engineers can take action as individuals to increase and expand their political engagement. For instance, it only takes a few minutes to contact federal, state, and municipal elected officials to talk about key issues, within and outside of science. Taking these actions promotes political engagement in our professional sphere, which shifts the culture towards engagement and encourages collective action.

Ultimately, there are myriad ways in which both individual scientists and organizations can take sustained actions that prioritize justice in science policy and hold others accountable to this goal. For too long in science policy, we have put funding first. Now it is time to put people first.

This is an opinion and analysis article.


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