Translating science into policy: the power of boiling it down

I am not the typical graduate student. Before starting graduate school, I served as a submarine officer in the Navy for seven years. While I was on active duty, I served at a command where scientists frequently briefed us on how their research would impact our work. Sitting in many of these presentations, I noticed that the scientists often spoke exclusively in technical jargon – to the extent that the military-minded decision-makers did not know what questions to ask for clarification. As a result, decisions were made often without understanding the science. Seeing this disconnect, I vowed to work at bringing the two sides together – or at least to find a way to shorten the gap between the two.

Flash forward to my second year of graduate school. In coursework, I found that I often wanted practical or social application of what I had learned. I was discouraged by several faculty members for wanting to make connections between my coursework and its broader implications. For example, in a climate class, I was informed a project proposal to examine how various carbon tax and cap and trade programs would impact carbon dioxide concentrations was not germane to the learning objectives of the course. I noticed in conversations with the undergraduates that many also did not see the connections between disciplines in much of their coursework. I also knew that the current job market in academia meant that many of my peers would ultimately get positions outside of academia, where non-scientific communication skills are a necessity.

Given this strong drive to create scientists focused on research, there has been a gap in my course of study on how to communicate my research to people other than fellow scientists. Between writing journal articles, giving talks at conferences, presenting at lab meetings, taking classes on scientific writing – there have been plenty of opportunities to learn how to communicate with other scientists. However, there are few opportunities to learn how to communicate with non-scientists at the graduate level (and even fewer at the undergraduate level). These limited opportunities usually target communications “to a broader audience,” which is code for the public. However, policymakers, government officials, and the military listen according to their specific agenda rather than to enhance general knowledge.

To fill this gap, I created a module designed to teach scientists how to write and speak with policymakers. It was piloted in the undergraduate capstone course (ATM/OCN/ESS 475), but it could easily be tailored for any class. In designing the module, I largely drew on my experience from the Navy as a policymaker, as well as my “extracurricular” studies in environmental policy while in graduate school. The end goal of this module was for students to write a policy-relevant paper, known as a one-pager, and deliver a policy brief on a topic they had researched. This conveniently fell into a broader strategy for re-imagining this course, where students would produce a portfolio of written work to demonstrate their breadth of communication skills. The pre-survey of the undergraduates in this class showed that the students’ future career plans ranged from a variety of government agencies to renewable energy, and from civil engineering to graduate school in environmental policy.

When I initially told students what they would be doing in the module, many were apprehensive – as this was seemingly a stretch from their academic backgrounds. To put the students at ease, a large component of the module was focused on analyzing examples, both written and oral. In this way, the students could develop their own set of best practices before looking at what scholars and practitioners recommend. The similarities between the two helped put the students at ease, and made them realize that the critical thinking skills they have developed throughout their undergraduate careers provide the necessary skill set to rethink how they communicate science. After two sessions, the students were given their assignments to create a policy one-pager and an oral policy proposal based on their research. The students were required to give peer feedback on each other’s policy pieces, both to continue to build their awareness of effective writing and to increase their exposure to additional samples.  These assignments were due at the end of the quarter, with oral presentations given in the final class. A student’s policy paper is shown below.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much the students enjoyed the policy module, as well as their performance with the written policy pieces. I had several students tell me this was one of the most useful projects they had in their undergraduate career. Most importantly, the skills students learned from this module were added to the toolbox which students will carry with them into their future careers. Given the current political climate, it is vital that everyone feels comfortable sharing their knowledge of climate change science. Hopefully, the next time these students are briefing a military commander, they’ll get to influence his/her decision… or at least know that they are speaking the same language.

Brandon Ray is a graduate student in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, studying the transition from oil/gas to clean, renewable energy in the Arctic. He previously received a master’s degree in Atmospheric Science, studying Arctic sea ice predictability. In a previous career, Brandon was a fifth-grade teacher and carries that mind-set around with him…to which he apologizes for all the students he’s had the privilege to teach.