Becoming a Scientist 4.0

By Michelle Tigchelaar & Johanna Goldman

As the District of Columbia was preparing itself to watch the James Comey hearing the way soccer fans watch World Cup matches — in a bar at 10am — we were huddled together in a building just blocks away from the center of action, preparing ourselves instead for Day 4 of the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium.  The SPC is an annual ten-day workshop, where early career scientists, government researchers, and industry professionals in earth and atmospheric sciences gather to learn about science policy straight from the horse’s mouth and build a strong network of policy-engaged scientists.  It is led by the fantastic Bill Hooke, who not only manages to arrange a star line-up of speakers, but also leaves you feeling like you’ve gained ten years of life wisdom in less than a week and a half.

In addition to encouraging everyone with an interest in science policy and a curiosity for politics and working life in D.C. to apply for this Colloquium, we would like to share some key lessons from our two weeks with the AMS:

  • Lesson 0 Wow, being a politician is hard!
  • Lesson 1 One half of science policy is the policy that affects science, and the most tangible expression of this is the budgeting process.  High-level federal science budget decisions are made by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP; including the yet-to-be-appointed Presidential Science Advisor), and Congress.  During this year’s SPC, most statements about the budget started with: “This is not what is happening this year, but in a normal year…”.  Unusual or not, the Presidential guideline is always the starting point for budget discussions in Congress; there, the overall spending target is divided over 12 appropriation subcommittees, all of which include components of science funding.  Trump’s 2018 budget request proposes deep cuts to science agencies, which would tremendously impact the programs they fund, but do very little for the federal budget as a whole, as science funding makes up less than 1% of the U.S. $3.8 billion annual federal budget.  Generally though, scientists should 1) familiarize themselves with the budget process and timeline so they know when their opinion matters, and 2) become friends with an OMB budget officer, because they turn out to have a lot of power advocating for the science that interests them.
  • Lesson 2 If participation in (or even the existence of) the Science March is any indication, scientists these days are very concerned with making themselves and their science matter.  As per the stories on the Hill however, scientists too often come to policy makers with a dangerous combination of naivete and overconfidence: not knowing anything about politics or the legislative process, but convinced that their science should be the main force behind a piece of legislation.  On the contrary, politicking is quite complicated, many factors determine the success of a proposed policy, and rather than numbers and data, the D.C. currencies of choice are relationships, stories, and anecdotes.  So before you reach out to your congressperson (or their staff; there are about 20,000 congressional staffers in D.C.!), do your research: What committees do they sit on? What interests them? How is your research of relevance to their district? How can you be of help to them?  Perhaps more important than getting to provide input on that one policy, is the opportunity to build a long-lasting relationship with your legislator.  Of course, from Seattle, Washington D.C. may be a bit of a trek for regular visits, but much of these ideas would as easily apply to Olympia, a mere hour away.
  • Lesson 3 During our ten days at the SPC, we were quite impressed with the number of PhD-holding individuals that have made their way into policy-related positions in D.C.  They for instance hold advisory positions within executive offices like the OSTP and State Department, manage programs at USAID and the National Academies, or do analysis as Congressional staff or with the Congressional Research Service.  Many of them found their way into the city through the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, which each year host several hundred scientists in assignments in the Executive and Legislative branches, either directly through the AAAS or through a partner professional society (think AGU or AMS).  If a year seems like too much of a commitment (or if you are not a U.S. citizen), the Mirzayan Fellowship of the National Academies provides early career researchers with an opportunity to spend 12 weeks in D.C. (deadline: September 8).  More recently, California has introduced a state-level science policy fellowship, and word has it that discussions are underway for Washington state as well.  Given the interest amongst young scientists for careers in science policy, universities would do well to not only invest in curricula that build skills in communication and policy engagement, but also to broker the relationships that provide opportunities to put these skills to work.


The week was filled with important lessons and discussions, but perhaps the most important lesson was Bill Hooke’s theory on the evolution of scientists (his original description can be found on his awesome blog):

Scientists 1.0 were primarily philosophers who made observations of the world around them, and then internalized these observations to make their own interpretation of the science behind them. Think: Aristotle, Empedocles, Galen.

Scientists 2.0 started the scientific method with meticulous observations, experimental design, and precise measurements. The best examples of this version are Galileo and Newton.

Scientists 3.0 emerged after World War II, and many specimens are still active today. They might be best described as “Stale Pale Males”. These were brilliant men who advanced science tremendously, but did not consider communication outside the scientific community as part of their duties. As a result, science became slowly marginalized from the public sphere: both in its selection of scientific endeavors (science for the sake of science) and in its relation with local and global communities.

In recent years, a new generation of Scientists, version 4.0, has begun to emerge. The Scientist 4.0 not only understands the necessity of communicating with the general public (and policymakers), it also recognizes the critical need for the scientific community to resemble the population at large. It may have been comfortable for previous generations of scientists to think that science was disconnected from society (and therefore politics), but the recent attacks on science prove the need for scientists to make their work matter. Society cannot survive without science and science does not have a purpose without society. Policy is where the two interact and grow together. Learn to be comfortable in this space.