Giving students a seat at the table: why we should teach science policy advocacy early on

After walking down a winding hallway on the eighth floor of the Chicago Hilton, I quietly opened the door to the Lake Michigan Room to find a table full of middle school, high school, and college students asking a lawyer from the Environmental Defense Fund questions about clean energy policy. I had just walked into one of the first sessions of the Student Advocacy Summit, a two-day conference on science policy advocacy for students ages 13-25 that I had helped to organize.

As someone who has taught a course on biomedical engineering for middle and high school students, I was long past the point of being surprised by the thoughtful and critical questions that the students were asking. Some of the most intriguing scientific questions ever posed to me came from my students.

Six students sit around a round table in a conference room, in discussion, and someone is filming them
Student Roundtable Discussion on Clean Energy with EDF Senior Attorney Christie Hicks. (Photo by Jordan Harrod)

What was surprising was the feeling of surprise emanating from the students, that they would be allowed to have questions and opinions on topics of science policy advocacy and science communication. Many of them felt passively or actively excluded from the larger conversations, especially those who were not of voting age.

Many of them felt passively or actively excluded from the larger conversations, especially those who were not of voting age.

The assumption that students’ views do not contribute to issues of science policy can be damaging, both to students and their interest in both science and policy issues, as well as to the larger cause of science policy advocacy. After all, students eventually turn into adults who have those larger conversations around policy issues, potentially voting based on the conclusions they’ve reached.

There has been a strong push within the scientific community towards teaching scientists how to communicate their work to the public and advocate for evidence-based policy. While I certainly support this effort, much of the work has been focused inward, with less effort mounted towards educating the larger public on science policy issues and the underlying science.

Academic scientific research, in particular, has long been considered an “Ivory Tower,” where researchers can shout about their science from the rooftops but the average person cannot make their way in. When it comes to enacting political change in favor of evidence-based policy, however, scientists make up only a small portion of the constituency of any particular politician.

In other words, shouting from the rooftops isn’t enough.

Burgeoning scientists or science-curious students want to be part of both scientific and political conversations. More importantly, they will be personally affected by the science policy decisions made by their representatives, and they have a right to have access to the information they need to advocate for decisions that benefit them.

Burgeoning scientists or science-curious students want to be part of both scientific and political conversations.

Teaching students about science policy and science advocacy should be central to the push to promote science advocacy in the larger scientific community. As citizens living with current science-related policies, they can better inform the science advocacy community of the issues that we need to focus on, especially as they bring their knowledge back to communities with underrepresented or marginalized populations whose voices are often unheard.

As cliché as the saying is, these students are the future of science. To establish science policy advocacy as a norm within the scientific community in the long-term, we need to establish science policy education programs for young scientists and science-curious students now.


Jordan can be found at jordanharrod.com, on Twitter at @jordanbharrod, and on YouTube at everydAI.

Jordan Harrod

Jordan is a first-year PhD student in Medical Engineering and Medical Physics at Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology. Outside of the lab, she has YouTube channel on AI-focused science communication, is an organizer for March for Science, and writes about recent biomedical papers on her blog.

Leave a Reply