UCS Blog - Science Network Guest Posts

Science and Transparency: Harms to the Public Interest from Harassing Public Records Requests

Photo: Bishnu Sarangi/Pixabay.

In my work as a professor and researcher in the Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I investigate the basic mechanisms underlying how exposure to toxic metals contribute to cellular effects and disease. My lab explores how exposures to environmental toxins, such as lead, manganese, and arsenic can cause or contribute to the development of diseases in humans. For example, some neurobehavioral and neurodegenerative disorders, such as learning deficits and Parkinsonism have been linked to elevated lead and manganese exposures in children and manganese exposures in adults, respectively.

California condor in flight. Lead poisoning was a significant factor precluding the recovery of wild condors in California.

In my career spanning 25 years, I helped develop and apply a scientific method to identify environmental sources of the toxic metal lead in exposure and lead poisoning cases in children and wildlife. I helped develop laboratory methods for evaluating tissue samples, including a “fingerprinting” technique based on the stable lead isotope ratios found in different sources of lead that enables the matching of lead in blood samples to the source of the lead exposure.

In the early 2000s, I collaborated with graduate students, other research scientists, and several other organizations to investigate the sources of lead poisoning that was killing endangered California condors. Our research showed that a primary source of lead that was poisoning condors came from ingesting lead fragments in animals that had been shot with lead ammunition, and that this lead poisoning was a significant factor precluding the recovery of wild condors in California.

Our work provided important scientific evidence of the harm that lead ammunition causes on non-target wildlife, and it supported the passage of AB 821 in 2007 and AB 711 in 2013, which led to partial and full bans on the use of lead ammunition for hunting in California.

Gun lobby attempts to discredit research

Because of our research, I and other collaborators received five public records requests under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) between December 2010 and  June 2013 from the law firm representing the California Rifle and Pistol Association Foundation seeking, in summary: all writings, electronic and written correspondence, analytical data, including raw data related to my research on lead in the environment and animals spanning a six year period. The very broad records requests asked for any and all correspondence and materials that contained the word “lead,” “blood,” “isotope,” “Condor,” “ammunition,” or “bullet.”  The request essentially sought everything I had done on lead research for this time period.

One seeming goal of the requestors was to discredit our findings and our reputations, as made apparent on a pro-hunting website that attempted to discredit our peer-reviewed and published findings. We initially responded that we would not release data and correspondence relating to unpublished research, because of our concern that we would lose control of the data and risk having it and our preliminary findings be published by others. As a result, the California Rifle and Pistol Association Foundation sued us in California Superior Court.  Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of the university and researchers by narrowing the scope of the CPRA requests, and limiting the requests to published studies and the underlying data cited.

Impacts and harms from overly broad public records requests

These very broad public records requests have had a significant impact on my ability to fulfill my research and teaching duties as a faculty member at University of California, Santa Cruz. I personally have spent nearly 200 hours searching documents and electronic files for responsive materials; meeting with university counsel and staff; preparing and sitting for depositions, court hearings, and giving testimony. Our efforts to provide responsive materials are ongoing.

Overly broad public records requests deprive the public of the benefits that such research can bring, such as helping wildlife and endangered species (such as the California Condor) survive and thrive by removing sources of environmental lead contamination.

While these requests have had a personal and professional impact on me as an individual, they have caused broader harms to the university’s mission of teaching and production of innovative research that benefits students, California residents, and the public at large. Impacts include:

  • Interfering with my ability to pursue research funding, conduct research, analyze data, and publish my research because of the time required to search and provide responsive materials that takes away from time invested in other duties.
  • Squelching scientific inquiry, and research communications and collaborations with colleagues or potential colleagues at other research institutions.

By chilling research and discouraging graduate students and collaborators from pursuing investigations into topics that could put them at odds with powerful interests, these types of expansive records requests deprive the public of the benefits that such research can bring, such as helping wildlife and endangered species survive and thrive by removing sources of environmental lead contamination.

Why I support modernizing the California Public Records Act

I chose to testify in front of the California Assembly Committee on the Judiciary in support of AB 700 and the effort to modernize the California Public Records Act to protect the freedom to research and to help  streamline the ability of California public universities to process and manage public records requests. This bill establishes very narrow exceptions for researchers to protect unpublished data and some peer correspondence, which would help prevent task diversion, reputational damage, and encourage inquiry and knowledge production at public universities across the state. AB 700 would also reduce the serious burden from expansive and overly-broad records requests on researchers and on the courts and the long backlog of records requests. I think this bill strikes the right balance between public transparency and privacy for research. Ultimately, the public will be better served if the state provides more clarity about what information should be disclosable under the California Public Records Act.


Donald Smith is Professor of Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He received his PhD in 1991 and he joined the faculty at UC Santa Cruz in 1996. He has over 20 years experience and published over 100 peer-reviewed articles in environmental health research, with an emphasis on exposures and neurotoxicology of environmental agents, including the introduction, transport and fate of metals and natural toxins in the environment, exposure pathways to susceptible populations, and the neuromolecular mechanisms underlying neurotoxicity.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Photo: Gavin Emmons Photo: Donald Smith

6 Ways to Make Your Science Advocacy Effective at the State and Local Levels

Photo: Gage Skidmore

I’m a huge believer in the idea that to make a difference, you should start where you’re already at. For me, that’s a graduate student studying bioengineering in Arizona. Many of us start graduate school with grand plans that inevitably are cut to size by our advisor. It takes time to learn the tools to make an impact, so we start small by learning to be the best scientists and community members we can be in our own labs. Ultimately these small steps help us to leave graduate school with the skills and confidence to make that big impact we wanted to when we first started.

Similarly, the goal of affecting political change can feel amorphous and far away when you’re just getting started. Washington D.C. is a long way from the lab for many of us and the distance can sometimes feel too far to bridge. However, much of the policy that affects our day-to-day lives is made on the state and local level. In my state, this includes everything from tax rates on gasoline to water usage to renter’s rights. My health, finances, and housing are directly affected by decisions made fifteen minutes down the road from me at our state capitol in Phoenix.

With this in mind, myself and other concerned graduate students got together to organize the first ever Science Day at the Arizona state legislature this past February. Our initial goals were pretty simple. We wanted to introduce ourselves to our legislators so they could learn about our science, and to introduce young scientists to the legislative process. We spent the day mingling with legislators, presenting our work on water issues, brainstorming new advocacy ideas, and observing law-making in action.

We learned a few key things along the way that may help your advocacy as well!

  1. Don’t go it alone: Several of us had been to the capitol before as individuals to comment on bills or speak with our legislators. I for one, sat through many frustrating hearings without back-up or moral support. Having a group of peers to help with organizing and refine the direction of our advocacy is an invaluable resource. Team up!
  2. Have an ally (or allies!) on the inside: Prior to Science Day, we built relationships with several sympathetic representatives. Their staffers were instrumental in helping us navigate everything at the capitol from room reservations to political dynamics. Build relationships and maintain them to work effectively at your state legislature. More often than not, representatives are happy to engage with you. Which brings me to our next tip…
  3. Make calls: In D.C., people’s phones are constantly ringing. In state capitols, much less so. Your calls have much more influence here. Trying to schedule something? Pick up the phone rather than sending an email. Staffers are an amazing resource and you can often get issues resolved quite quickly if you speak with them directly. Likewise, if you want to make yourself heard on an issue, keeping a representative’s staffer tied up on the phone is an effective way to make a statement. Fielding 50 calls from concerned local scientists takes up time that a staffer would otherwise be using to plan a representative’s schedule, bring them lunch, or make their day run more smoothly in a myriad of ways. Your lawmakers will notice you!
  4. Plan diligently but be flexible: While we scheduled our room for Science Day months in advance, the majority party decided to use it for caucusing the day before our event. We scrambled to find another space last minute and had to make some changes to the agenda, but ultimately the day went fantastically. Plan as best you can, but be prepared for some hiccups. Use those allies of yours to navigate them!
  5. Speak their language: Before we went to the capitol, we held several happy hours with local legislators and a fellow graduate student working in communications to help prepare us for speaking with our lawmakers. It’s a good idea to do some preparation beforehand on non-confrontational communication. Focus on building relationships and telling your story first, instead of starting with a demand. This will make the legislator you’re speaking with more receptive to the message you ultimately leave with them.
  6. Have a continuation plan: Put plans in place to sustain your advocacy like debriefing after events to discuss what worked and what didn’t, keeping in touch with staffers on a regular basis, and making sure that when a key player graduates or moves, someone else in the group can pick up the torch where they left off.

We hope that this Science Day will be an annual event that becomes part of our larger goals that have emerged from productive time with our lawmakers. Ultimately, we are working to establish a group of scientists as a “go-to” resource for science advising at the Arizona legislature. Just a few weeks after Science Day, a representative we spoke with decided to found a Science Caucus at the capitol to help represent scientific formally in our lawmaking. We’re excited to use the caucus as a stepping stone to the formation of a formal office for science advising at the state capitol. Secondly, we hope to continue empowering young scientists to make change in our state and beyond by giving them the confidence that comes from directly learning the structure, culture, and language of politics. Plans are in the works to provide regular speaking opportunities at the capitol for trainees in STEM.

Cassandra Barrett is a science policy activist and co-founder of the Arizona Science Policy Network. Her background is in CRISPR and epigenetic therapeutics development, and science communication in unconventional spaces. Her personal mission is to help ethically shape the regulation and implementation of genetic medicines by centering patient needs and justice practices. Cassandra obtained her PhD in Biological Design from the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering at Arizona State University. Find her on Twitter @cas9bar.


Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

The Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics Continues to Weaken

This letter was originally posted by our partners at the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN). PR-SPAN is a new initiative of Ciencia Puerto Rico that seeks to activate the Puerto Rican scientific community, wherever it may be, to inform the development and implementation of federal, state and local policies based on scientific basis. PR-SPAN and Ciencia Puerto Rico have been diligently following the important issue of the integrity of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics for many months now. As partners in support of science-based advocacy and policy making, the UCS Science Network is sharing their call for signatures to raise support for the independence and credibility of the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics.


Dear members of the scientific community and friends of Puerto Rico,

We want to draw your attention and invite you to take action on an urgent public policy issue: the continued weakening of the governance of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS). We invite you to sign and share the petition below.

Sign the petition

Are you signing on behalf of a professional organization or scientific society? Click here.

—The Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)


We demand strong governance for an independent and autonomous Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics

During the past two years, the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) has faced a series of threats that have undermined its autonomy, credibility, and reputation. From 2017 to date, the administration of the Hon. Dr. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares has illegally removed members from the Board of Directors, tried to dismantle the Institute and outsource its functions, and made appointments to the Board that have been questioned by the international scientific community. In January 2019, there were allegations about the politicization of the Board of Directors and their ability to act independently and free of partisan influences. As of February 10, 2019 the role of executive director of the Institute has been vacant, after the resignation of Dr. Mario Marazzi Santiago, who had served in this role since 2007.

These events not only cast doubt on the future of the Institute of Statistics, but also create serious concerns about the capacity of the Puerto Rican government and society to make decisions and create public policies informed by scientific evidence and by statistics that are timely, reliable, and of high-quality.

Therefore, we ask the Government of Puerto Rico and the Board of Directors of the Institute of Statistics to take the following actions to strengthen the governance, independence and autonomy of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics:

  • Maintain the powers and faculties of the Executive Director to protect the independence of PRIS: Any future amendments made to the organic law of the Institute should seek to strengthen the governance and independence of the agency, but without weakening the powers and faculties of the Executive Director, and without granting more power to the Board of Directors or the Governor.
  • Dissociate the Governor and Puerto Rico Senate from the process of nominating and confirming members to the PRIS Board of Directors: Currently, the members of the PRIS Board of Directors are nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Puerto Rico Senate. To avoid the possibility of partisan influence, we ask that the nomination and confirmation process to the Board of Directors of the Statistics Institute be dissociated from the government in turn (similar to the nomination process for the Board of Trustees of the Puerto Rico Science Trust).
  • Strengthen the PRIS Board as an independent, objective body of experts: We ask that candidates to the PRIS Board of Directors (1) are nominated by scientific associations or professional and industrial groups that represent the relevant fields of specialization; (2) are experts with integrity, personal and professional objectivity, demonstrated expertise, and advanced academic preparation (a master’s or doctoral degree) in the use of statistics, economics or planning; (3) do not have direct connections to the current or previous government administrations (i.e. not having held elective public office during at least five (5) years prior to their appointment; not having participated, collaborated or made political or financial contributions to political candidates or campaigns, as suggested in Article 2 of P. de la C. 4409 from May 12, 2008 [Word document], presented by the Representative and now Resident Commissioner Hon. Jennifer González-Colón).
  • The search and appointment of the next Executive Director is done transparently and in consultation with the Puerto Rican and international scientific community: The scientific community has demonstrated time and again its commitment to the autonomy of the PRIS and government transparency in Puerto Rico. Therefore, the members of PR-SPAN and UCS, and members of the Puerto Rican and international scientific community are willing to actively participate in the nomination, search and selection process for the next Executive Director of the PRIS. It is of the utmost importance that the Executive Director has the relevant expertise, and is committed to the independence and autonomy of the Institute, and to keeping it free from partisan influences.

We urge the scientific community and friends of Puerto Rico to join this petition and continue advocating for the autonomy, independence, reputation and credibility of the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics.

Sign the petition

Are you signing on behalf of a professional organization or scientific society? Click here.


Carlos M. De León-Rodríguez is a PR-SPAN ambassador, was also part of the inaugural class of the Scientist Sentinels: Civic Engagement & Leadership Program. He is an advocate for evidence-based policy making.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

The Journal of Science Policy and Governance (JSPG): Engaging early career researchers in science policy

The Journal of Science Policy and Governance (JSPG) was established nearly ten years ago by a small cadre of students and science policy leaders who sought to create an open access, interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed platform for early career researchers (ECRs) of all disciplines to publish well-developed policy assessments addressing the widest range of science, technology and innovation policy topics worldwide.

Today, JSPG is a non-profit organization that has produced 15 volumes addressing a myriad of policy topics including health, the environment, space, energy, technology, STEM education, and defense, as well as science communications and diplomacy. Publication in JSPG is, for many authors, their first experience writing on science policy issues in a format that is accessible to policy stakeholders. Even fewer authors have had the experience of publishing science policy pieces in a peer-reviewed format prior to this experience. JSPG volumes are published on an accelerated timeline (to keep fresh with current debate) and range from succinct op-eds to comprehensive policy assessments to rigorous technology assessments.

Our JSPG team has great fortune of working with an outstanding line-up of authors, as well as editorial board and staff comprised of ECRs and policy professionals, and finally a distinguished advisory board and a governing board of senior science policy thinkers and doers who share our belief that ECRs can and should hone their policy research and writing skills and engage in policy debates. We also do our best to honor JSPG leadership. Our most recent issue was dedicated to the late Homer A. Neal of University of Michigan, who served on JSPG’s advisory board until his passing in 2018, and was a long-time supporter of JSPG and the involvement of ECRs in policy.

More than a research journal: Maximizing impact through partnerships

What sets JSPG apart from other peer-reviewed publications is the outreach and engagement we undertake with our partners and collaborators, enabling us to reach more ECRs and achieve a greater depth of impact for published work.

NSPN-JSPG competition announced at NSPN Symposium in New York City. Photo credit: JSPG

Some examples of our accomplishments include:

UCS and JSPG: Engaging ECRs in science policy

Both JSPG and UCS seek to empower and encourage the meaningful inclusion of ECRs in science policy research, writing, and debate.

Young people comprise an important constituency in most countries, bring in fresh perspectives, and an infectious level of energy to their policy engagement. Whether ECRs seek to transition into policy-oriented careers or engage in policy in industry or academia, we believe they can play an important role in strengthening policy around the world.

At a time when political leaders are facing increasingly complex science and technology policy challenges, ranging from CRISPR to climate change, the need to equip the next generation of research professionals with policy engagement skills has grown. Despite this reality, few ECRs are encouraged to engage in policy during their academic training, and even fewer are offered training opportunities to sharpen their policy engagement skills.

JSPG’s mission and our own personal missions focused on addressing this challenge. In recognition of our long-standing partnership with UCS, we are very pleased to announce a 4-part blog series illustrating how JSPG has helped equip ECRs with science policy research and writing expertise. In these posts, we will explore the professional journey of current and past JSPG editors, authors, and staff, many of whom are also members of UCS Science Network.

This is the first post in the series. In the three subsequent blog posts, our team will:

  1. Connect the journal to international science diplomacy and policy debate
  2. Illustrate the impact of JSPG on the career trajectories of past editors
  3. Provide a perspective on how policy writing skills translate into science communication
We can’t do this alone. Let’s work together

JSPG is actively seeking partners and collaborators. Let’s team up. Please consider joining JSPG’s mailing list and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Together, we’ll strengthen the ability for ECR to substantively share their ideas on cutting edge science, technology, and innovation policy.


Adriana Bankston is the Director of Communications & Outreach at the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. Adriana manages communication and public relations, social media and marketing efforts on behalf of the journal. Adriana’s personal mission is to improve the biomedical research enterprise by empowering ECRs to advocate for change. Adriana is a Policy & Advocacy Fellow at The Society for Neuroscience, and a Policy Activist at the non-profit Future of Research. Adriana obtained her Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology from Emory University. Find her on Twitter at @AdrianaBankston.

Shalin R. Jyotishi is the Chief Executive Officer of the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. His background intersects innovation policy and economic development. He has held positions at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the University of Michigan. He is a University Innovation Fellow of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, a Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum, a member of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth, and an editor of the Journal of Economic Development in Higher Education. Find him on Twitter at @ShalinJyotishi.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

People are the Purpose of Science

Nakala was only four months old, a chubby and cherubic baby, when I saw her that summer for a routine check up at our pediatric clinic in Flint. Her mom Grace told me she was going to stop breastfeeding. That didn’t surprise me. I tried to convince her otherwise, but for young moms in Flint, it’s often regarded as a complicated hassle — and hard to do when you’re struggling to hold down a job.

Grace planned to mix powdered formula with tap water for Nakala. She asked me pointedly if the Flint water was okay for that.

“Sure,” I said without hesitation. “Don’t waste your money on bottled water.”

It was August, 2015. I’d heard some news reports of citizen protests about the drinking water; it had become background noise. As a pediatrician, all I had to go on, besides the fact that it was twenty-first century America, was what the other experts, the scientists who worked for the state, had to say.

And they were adamant. Oh yes. They were cocksure and confident — repeatedly issuing statements that there was no room for doubt. The tap water in Flint was fine. The mayor had even gone on TV, turned on a Flint faucet — and drank some.

What is science for?

Scientists like to talk about what they are “solving for” in their work. In classrooms all over the world, students are told that the purpose of science is “explaining and predicting our world.”

Is that enough?

I don’t think so. Not after what I discovered that summer in 2015. Explaining the world isn’t enough. Predicting isn’t either. In my book about the Flint water crisis, What the Eyes Don’t See, I share the story of how the most egregious present-day example of science denial unfolded — and how the government scientists knew that a powerful neurotoxic, lead, was present in the Flint water for months, but did nothing. Instead, they hoped their expertise and titles would shield their lies from being exposed. In Flint, ignoring science led to the poisoning of an entire city’s water system.

It pains me that so many of the people who should have been looking out for the children of Flint, but who failed them instead, were scientists: doctors, epidemiologists and engineers. I know it seems an exaggeration to compare what happened in Michigan to something as terrible as the Nazi doctors who participated in the Holocaust, or the scientists involved in Tuskegee syphilis study, or the military psychiatrists who participated in torture.

But is it all that different?

Our children cannot afford to have science and scientists shut their eyes, look away, and stay silent to injustices.

Solving for human progress

In What the Eyes Don’t See, I reflect on the work of some groundbreaking scientists — primarily the big troublemakers of public health, Alice Hamilton and John Snow. Rather than going along with consensus or standing on the sidelines, they were passionately involved in their communities. Their work wasn’t about abstract scientific discovery alone. It was about people and community, working in partnership.

That is what science should be about — and what scientists should be solving for. It isn’t just an academic exercise for the ivory tower, to rack up publications, grants, and offers of tenure. Sure, being able to increase our understanding of the world around us is essential. And making better predictions is crucial. Without question, scientific advances are a foundation of modern civilization and economy. But as twentieth-century history illustrates so well, scientific advances aren’t limited to wonders such as antibiotics. It also includes such evils as nuclear weapons. The consequences of advances in science, and the application of technology, cannot be divorced from scientific discovery.

Discoveries alone aren’t enough. Science should be solving for human progress. The promise of science is how people and communities – and the environment – benefit from scientific inquiry and innovation.

Simply put, the purpose of science must be to do good. And a logical extension is that the paramount mission of all scientists is to be charged with doing good. No matter what articles of faith obstruct the path. No matter how far we have to step from the comfort of classrooms, hospitals, laboratories, and campuses. Scientists must be constructive participants in the communities that we are privileged to serve, and do this in a spirit of humble partnership, walking and working together, shoulder to shoulder.

The point is people

The face of Nakala kept returning to me in the months that passed — throughout the stressful and contentious remainder of 2015, throughout the lawsuits, charges and trials that unfolded after the Flint Water Crisis was exposed.

Nakala’s face still comes to me now, three years later, whenever I’m asked if the tap water in Flint is finally okay to drink.

Speaking science to power should be part of the mission of the doctor, the researcher, the academic — all scientists everywhere. Disrupting the status quo for disruption’s sake alone is not enough. We should be elevating human life and protecting the environment.

Scientific education, be it in medical, engineering, natural or physical science, often misses this point. Graduate schools and scientific organizations tend to educate, and only educate, and wait for others to blow the whistle in the name of public health and the environment.

The point of a science education — any science education — should be about people. And not en masse, as a statistic, but person to person. It should be about benefiting lives, doing good, improving outcomes. There should be more training in communications, public speaking, and policy-making so scientists can be better communicators and advocates of our discoveries and the benefits.

Inclusion and diversity are a critical part of all this, not just as restorative justice, but as a means to connect to the higher purpose of science, which need to benefit more people and more places. The recipients of scientific advances have to extend beyond the rich and white. And the injustices associated with industry and technology must also not fall disproportionately on the poor and brown.

Science was an integral part of what happened in Flint – and is still happening. Ignoring science was a cause of the water crisis. Embracing science was how the fight to reveal the lies and cover-ups was won. And now, it is leading the city to solutions. The emerging science of child development and brain plasticity are helping to build resilience in our kids like Nakala, to buffer the impact of the crisis and create a playbook of hope for children everywhere.

My hope is that Flint will serve as a lesson of the consequences of science denial, and also of the incredible power that science and scientists hold – in beakers and at the bedside – to be catalysts for good.

Mona Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician, scientist, and professor in Flint, Michigan. She is the founder and director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative. She is author of the 2018 New York Times 100 Notable Book and NPR’s Science Friday Best Science Book of 2018, “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance and Hope in an American City.”

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Organizing a Science Policy Workshop: What we learned in Bozeman, Montana

Photo: Tim Evanson/Flickr

The Bozeman 500 Women Scientists pod held a science policy workshop in February 2018 for 30 female scientists from all career stages, undergraduate to professor and government-based scientists. Sound intimidating? Here’s how we got there.

In the summer of 2017, Emma Kate Loveday, Racheal Upton, Kelsey Wallisch Simon, and Chloe VanderMolen became the acting leadership for the local 500 Women Scientists pod. The 500 Women Scientists pod in Bozeman, Montana, meets regularly to act as a local support network, make strategic plans, and take action within the community. 500 Women Scientists is a grassroots organization started by women scientists, with the goal of promoting equality for female scientists and decreasing the anti-science agenda in global, national, and local politics. The group was founded following the November 2016 election, when the national leadership published an open letter re-affirming their commitment to speak up for science and women, minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA individuals.

Making the initial connection and building relationships with policymakers

When the four of us pod leaders stepped up to run the Bozeman pod, we were very interested in working with local policy makers to make sure that science had its place at the table when legislation was being crafted. We quickly discovered the process of policy making is not straightforward, leading us to want to develop a further connection with local politicians to gain greater insight into the process. How could we expect scientists here in Bozeman to work actively to support policy-makers within such a confusing framework? So we applied for and received funding from UCS to hold an all-day science policy workshop for female scientists in all career stages. And boy, did we have an amazing workshop!

Planning a workshop

One of our main objectives for the day was to bring policy makers in from both sides of the aisle to discuss openly how they utilize science in their policy making decisions.
But before we could have our workshop, we had to do the groundwork. Here are some highlights we recommend for planning a workshop:

Timing: Our planning started with laying out the framework of what we imagined a successful day looked like. We started the workshop at 10am so everyone did not feel to rushed for a Saturday morning workshop. We worked out breaks and lunchtime and planned to end our formal workshop at 5pm but continue it with a happy hour at one of our local breweries!

Speakers: The four of us met up every Sunday over coffee or beers to prepare for the workshop. We utilized our own networks in Bozeman to touch base with local politicians and nonprofit groups that had legislative experience. One of the amazing aspects of Montana is the ability to reach out and interact with our state policy makers. We were able to locate speakers with relative ease that were more than happy to participate in the workshop.

Logistics: We set up an online google form for registration and located a space associated with Montana State University for holding our event. In addition to setting up the space, food and speakers, we wanted to provide on-site childcare. Both myself (Emma) and Chloe have young children and it can be difficult to do activities such as this on the weekend. So we booked a teacher from my daughter’s daycare for the Saturday and offered fully paid childcare for this event; expanding our attendance to a greater range female scientists! It was an important aspect that we felt should be offered at all scientific conferences and workshops. We contacted the more than 100 women from our local Bozeman pod members to advertise registration and the 30 slots for the workshop quickly filled up.

Teaching women scientists how to get involved in the legislative process

We started our workshop with a discussion featuring Zach Brown (Democrat from Bozeman) and Walt Sales (Republican from Manhattan, a small town about 10 miles west of Bozeman). Brown helped us reach out to Sales, a multi generation rancher, and we could not have had a better duo to discuss different perspectives on important issues such as climate change, water policy and how they incorporated science in general. Following, Kathleen Williams gave us the nuts and bolts of policymaking: an overview of how a bill becomes a law in the Montana government, how she as a state legislator tries to utilize scientific input, and where and how scientists could reach out to the state government to provide insight into proposed legislature. Joanna Nadeau, from UCS, gave an overview of how local and state policies connect into the federal system. After lunch we heard from Beth Kaeding at the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC), a non-profit that works with ranchers across the northern plains, who provided a scientist’s perspective on policymaking. As a member of NPRC, Kaeding had attended every legislative session for the past decade and has provided expert testimony during the committee and rule making process. She is an expert in the state government system and was highly knowledgeable how to work within it. One of the key takeaways from Kaeding was that there are multiple opportunities to provide expertise in the legislative process. Initially we believed that we would need to get in from the ground up when bills are being drafted, but we can also provide expert testimony at committee hearings, where policy makers consider whether or not to advance a bill to the house floor. There is also a great opportunity to provide information and expertise during rule making meetings, which occur after a bill has passed.

Following Beth, David Quammen, a world-renowned science writer and author, provided insight into how to communicate our science with both the public and policy-makers. This was further explored with expert advice from Dr. Shannon Willoughby and Kent Davis, both professors at Montana State University and authors, in which they explored the way to “storytell” scientific expertise to the general public. Each of our invited speakers was excited to spend a day with a group of women scientists and learn from us as much as we wanted to learn from them! All of our speakers spent the majority of the workshop with us, giving attendees extra opportunities to meet and have more in depth conversations with them. The commitment from each of our speakers was unexpected and reflects our community’s appreciation of science. We finished up the workshop with a happy hour. All the ladies that were able to attend the happy hour had a better chance to get to know each other and discuss the day’s events.

What success looks like

We were so excited to have female scientists from all career stages, from undergraduate to professor and government scientists, attend the event. By having a broad range of individuals in the audience we were able to address how you are able to participate in the policy-making process at every career stage. All of our participants said that they had a better understanding of the political process in Montana following the workshop. Our participants also appreciated the opportunity to see and meet people in government and realize how approachable and kind they were to the attendees and to each other. With the partisanship that plays out daily, this aspect struck a chord with the majority of our attendees, as reflected in our follow up surveys. Overall, our participants provided very positive feedback and we are getting requests and inquiries to see if we are going to hold a follow up workshop in 2019. We are very grateful to have had the opportunity to hold this unique event in Bozeman, MT and it has instilled a desire to continue to work towards science-based policies in our local 500WS pod that continues today.

Since the workshop the pod worked on a get out the vote campaign that was headed up by a few participants from our workshop and included a discussion with local candidates in October. We continue to nurture and maintain relationships with the speakers from the workshop and hope to work with them more as the Montana legislative sessions returns in 2019. While our path ahead to continue our work may feel daunting at times we are invigorated by the local community’s support for our cause and the overall need to continue this important fight.


Dr. Emma Kate Loveday is a postdoc working on single cell virology at Montana State University in the laboratory of Dr. Connie Chang. Dr. Loveday earned her B.S. in biochemistry from Suffolk University on Boston and her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at the University of British Columbia. Her time in Canada provided a unique perspective on US politics. Dr. Loveday is also the leader of the Bozeman 500 W.S. Pod. Follow her on Twitter at @DoctorLoveday, or the Bozeman pod @Bozeman500women.

Dr. Racheal Upton is a postdoctoral researcher with expertise in microbial ecology, particularly above and belowground interactions in prairies and cropping systems. Dr. Upton earned her B.S. in molecular biology from Millersville University, PA and her Ph.D. in microbiology from Iowa State University, Ames, IA. She has a strong passion for mentoring the future generation of female scientists and engaging with her local community. Dr. Upton is one of the co-leaders of the Bozeman 500WS pod and serves as the representative for the local pod to the larger 500WS organization. Follow her on Twitter @erbforscience

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Tim Evanson

A Failure of US Biosecurity: How Federal Regulators Helped a Japanese Beetle Cross the Border

With a partial government shutdown now in its 3rd week, many Americans are learning the hard way about the wide range of functions their federal government normally serves. One of those little-known functions is preventing the spread of invasive plants, insects, and other species that threaten native ecosystems and valuable natural resources, costing the United States an every year. Just last week, the shutdown forced conference organizers at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to cancel an annual meeting of 300 scientists working to coordinate research and find solutions. Even before the shutdown, however, USDA regulators had failed to fully live up to their obligations—designated by law—to protect US resources from invasive species.

Science-based regulation is essential to control invasive species

L. naganoensis. Photo: World review of Laricobius (Coleoptera: Derodontidae); Zootaxa 2908: 1–44 (2011)

Efforts to control one invasive species sometimes involve introducing another non-native species to serve as “biocontrol” agents. Biocontrol uses natural enemies like predators or parasitoids to control weeds and pests, but this can lead to new problems. And so it was when, in 2010, the USDA permitted release of the biocontrol agent Laricobius osakensis, a beetle native to Japan, for control of the hemlock woolly adelgid—an insect pest that is killing hemlock trees, an important forest species in eastern North America. Colonies of the biocontrol beetle were subsequently found to contain another undescribed beetle species, also a Japan native later named Laricobius naganoensis. The discovery prompted research investigating possible hybridization between L. naganoensis and other species that could become a problem, for example, if varying behavior of hybrids might harm native ecosystems.

However, before scientists could fully understand what L. naganoensis eats, or its other interactions or natural history, its release was also permitted.  In December of 2017, the USDA approved unlimited “…field release of L. naganoensis for the control of HWA” as a contaminant because it “cannot be reasonably eliminated from L. osakensis cultures” despite efforts by researchers to help prevent its release.

Harmful impacts of poorly regulated biocontrol go back decades.  For example, the cane toad introduced to Australia in 1935 to control sugar cane pests instead caused declines in native predators; the small Indian mongoose wiped out native Fijian birds after its introduction for rat control; and the multicolored Asian lady beetle, introduced for aphid control, has become a serious pest to humans and ecosystems in North America and Europe.

Like many of my colleagues in the field of conservation biology, I believed such uninformed releases were a thing of the past. Biocontrol practitioners now agree that agents should be released only after an informed evaluation of potential risks and this consensus dominates the scientific literature, for example, in Bigler et al. 2006, Barratt et al. 2010, Van Driesche & Simberloff 2016Heimpel & Cock 2017, and Heimpel & Mills 2017. Information about the agent—how it behaves and interacts with other species in its native range—is needed to predict impacts in places it will be introduced. The importance of accurate identification of agents and avoidance of contamination, even with related species, has long been recognized. Legal safeguards now exist, for example in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States to ensure that regulatory officials and the public aren’t caught unaware.

A failure of science and public transparency

Unfortunately, in the case of the Japanese beetle L. naganoensis, the safeguards failed. The Plant Protection Act of 2000 (7 U.S.C. § § 7701-7786) requires the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to conduct biocontrol agent permitting and tasks the agency with ensuring the process is transparent, accessible, and based on scientific evidence. This usually happens through public review and comment on a USDA-prepared Environmental Assessment (EA) that presents risks and, if necessary, a subsequent and more thorough Environmental Impact Statement. These documents are supposed to be prepared and made public before permitting decisions happen.

Instead, the first mention of L. naganoensis’ release came via a two-page “final decision” document issued by the USDA in December 2017. That document references an EA associated with L. osakensis that was written before L. naganoensis was known to exist. And it gives this groundless rationale for the permitting decision: because L. naganoensis’ diet is assumed similar to that of other Laricobius species, because L. naganoensis makes up a minor component of L. osakensis colonies, and because L. naganoensis is unlikely to persist owing to difficulty finding mates.

All these assumptions are questionable because scientists simply do not understand L. naganoensis well enough to confirm them. Moreover, the referenced EA was never provided for public review and comment. If it had been, the public would have seen that USDA acknowledges “there are no biological studies on L. naganoensis” and “the feeding rate of adult and larvae of L. naganoensis is unknown”.  In short, the USDA’s finding of “no evidence…[of] adverse environmental effects” is misleading because such a conclusion must be based on review of a substantial amount of evidence, and little is known about L. naganoensis. 

The seriousness of circumventing policy meant to inform and involve the US public and ensure informed decisions is compounded by the irony of allowing introduction of a little-understood species to control a previously introduced invasive species. What could go wrong?


Christy Leppanen is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.  She is interested in progressive and collaborative resource and pest management, particularly prevention and practices that minimize non-target impacts.  For more information visit her webpage.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Further Reading:

Leppanen C, Frank D, Simberloff D (2018) Circumventing regulatory safeguards: Laricobius spp. and biocontrol of the hemlock woolly adelgid.  Insect Conservation and Diversity

USDA (2017) Approval of Laricobius naganoensis (Coleoptera: Derodontidae), a Predatory Beetle for Biological Control of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, Adelges tsugae (Hemiptera: Adelgidae), in the Continental United States, Draft Environmental Assessment 2017. Plant Protection and Quarantine, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Riverdale, MD. Publication forthcoming