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GLOBES Trainees travel to Washington DC to engage policy-makers


University of Notre Dame graduate students in the NSF-IGERT interdisciplinary training program, Global Linkages of Biology, the Environment, and Society (GLOBES), learned and practiced ways to effectively communicate their research to policy-makers during a three-part Policy Training Module in the Spring of 2012. The training culminated in a trip to the nation’s capitol where students put into action the techniques and skills acquired during on campus workshop events and assignments.

The highly rated policy training module made possible by the NSF IGERT grant award is one of a series of modules sponsored by GLOBES to complement and enhance communications and leadership training for scientists and researchers. The overall goal of the module was to help participants develop the skills needed to speak about their research findings in a clear and engaging manner, and to provide them with a “real-world” experience in which they interact directly with policymakers and journalists on the national scene.

Lead organizers for the policy training events were Prof. David Lodge, co-principal investigator for the GLOBES-IGERT program, and Peter Annin, former Newsweek editor and current managing director of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative. Lodge and Annin worked with communications experts from COMPASS (Communications Partnership for Science and the Sea), the same training organization used by the prestigious Aldo Leopold Leadership program. Together, they custom designed workshop activities and agendas, and engaged outside guest trainers to interact with students in real-life scenarios. A one-hour webinar kicked off module activities and brought together student participants and trainers for the first time. COMPASS staff used the interactive video session to introduce basic messaging techniques and to begin a discussion on new media’s role in policy and politics. A pre-webinar assignment had students set up a “Twitter” handle and catchy bio in order to follow and participate in a science topic of their choosing for several days prior to the webinar. The more divisive the topic, the better, was the rule for students to see the powerful reverberations set in motion when social media takes on an issue and becomes a player in influencing and shaping public opinion.

The second part of the training module gathered 20 student participants, COMPASS staff, and guest policy experts for an on-campus workshop in the new home of the Environmental Change Initiative in Notre Dame’s Innovation Park. Prof. Lodge and Peter Annin set the stage for the workshop with a presentation on the major research foci of the initiative and plans to launch a cutting-edge environmental research and education facility at St. Patrick’s County Park.

Guest experts participating in the on-campus portion of the workshop were Chris Korleski, director of the Great Lakes National Program Office, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Tammy Newcomb, research program manager with the Fisheries Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources; and Hodge Patel, district director for U.S. Congressman Joe Donnelly. The guests each talked about their career path, their day to day life and the challenges and constraints they face in their work, giving students a more personal look at the world of policymakers. Following a general presentation on the risks and rewards of science communication and group discussions on the role of science in policy and politics, the guests took part in mock scenarios ranging from the cocktail party schmooze to phone calls and other meetings. For their part, students learned techniques to craft a research message for a particular audience and put the skills into practice during close-to-real world situations.

The second workshop day discussed ground rules in the changing world of media, an overview of the structure and function of Congress, and preparations and assignments for the DC trip. Individual prep time included work on one-pagers, setting up meetings with relevant agencies and legislative staff, and more.

Students put the finishing touches on their one-pagers, printed business cards, finalized DC meetings with policy makers and legislative staff, and packed business attire for the final training component that took them to Washington DC to meet face to face with the people who work in the world of Congress. The pace of the two-day blitz of the nation’s capital was challenging and invigorating for all the participants. In addition to pre-scheduled meetings and hearings, students met staff and policy specialists for national science organizations along with journalists and resource staff who cover science for major publications and institutes during panel discussions at group events.

A final debriefing allowed for reactions and feedback with workshop facilitators who received high praise for their expert advice. Follow-up surveys with students rated both module experiences above nine, on a scale of one to 10 with 10 as excellent. A Wiki page continues to follow student reactions and ongoing conversations with DC staff and lawmakers. Modern technology combined good, old-fashioned conversation skills to give students an edge in making their research understood by those who actively participate in the increasingly connected world of science and policy.

Address Goals

Communications training is a highly valued learning tool for students involved in the Global Linkages of Biology, the Environment and Society interdisciplinary training program at the University of Notre Dame. The training incorporates real world experiences that provide hands-on, face-to-face scenarios where students interact directly with journalists and policymakers on the national scene. The training experience cultivates a world-class science workforce fully prepared to engage the media and policy-makers in translating research findings to lasting solutions in environmental and human health challenges. Secondly, the effective communication of science to non-scientific audiences greatly expands the understanding of science and research by the average citizen. Scientific solutions must engage the public in an open dialogue that encourages the participation of all the major stakeholders. Scientists who can bridge the worlds of academia, the media and policy-making further advance the frontiers of knowledge and the potential for transformational science. They are prepared to be leaders and change-agents in an increasingly complex, global world.