UCS Blog - Science Network Guest Posts

Fighting for a Diverse and Equitable STEM Workforce in Colorado

Women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory pose for a photo in mission control in honor of Women in Science Day. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the state of Colorado, there are just over two million women, making up 53% of the enrolled undergraduate population and 50% of the workforce. However, women account for only 33% of those graduating with degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and hold only 26% of STEM jobs in the state. Colorado is not unique – this disparity in STEM education and employment is a nation-wide trend. This disparity begins early, with difference in male and female student interest in STEM showing up as early as middle school, by some estimates, and female students being more likely to self-describe themselves as “bad at math” as early as second grade. These differences in encouragement and interest have broad-reaching, profound, and lifelong implications for women’s economic security, career advancement, and workforce readiness compared to their male counterparts.

It is up to each and every one of us to change this reality. My name is Marian Hamilton, and I hold a PhD in Biological Anthropology and am an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Colorado (UNCO). As a participant in the Union of Concerned Scientist’s (UCS) Science Network Mentor Program, I had the pleasure of learning the basics of advocacy and community organizing from some of the nation’s most passionate, creative, and qualified scientists over the past 10 months. Armed with these tools, I am forming a Women in STEM group for interested undergraduate students at UNCO with three major objectives: first, to build a community that encourages, supports, and empowers women, particularly from minority or underrepresented groups, to choose majors and careers in STEM fields; second, to facilitate mentor partnerships at the K-12, college, and professional level; and third, to advocate for policies that will improve STEM education across Colorado and the nation, such as universal pre-K. Today, I want to share with you some of the key lessons I’ll be taking with me into this project:

Lesson 1: It starts early

Girls begin losing interest in STEM – or being told that they are “not good at” STEM fields – tragically early. For example, male high school students are more likely to enroll in engineering and computer science classes than their female classmates, and more likely to enroll in AP computer science classes, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. The gap between white and non-white students in such high school classes is even starker: black and Latinx students were significantly less likely to enroll in advanced science courses than their white classmates.

To change the societal biases that drive such disparities, we must start young, with universal access to pre-K programs that include a STEM component. Ballot measures like Initiative 93 in Colorado, on the ballot in November, would support all-day Kindergarten; withdrawn measures such as Initiative 98 would have provided full day pre-K to Colorado citizens and need to be revisited in upcoming election cycles. This Women in STEM group will support and advocate for such measures to appear on future ballots because fully funding early childhood education helps all students achieve in future STEM classes. Beyond this, such measures also help to close the achievement gap between wealthy and non-wealthy students, such that one’s readiness for the K-12 classroom – and the STEM classes therein – is not dependent on that child’s zip code.

Lesson 2: It takes a village

Changing a system is not something that happens in a vacuum. In fact, research suggests that one of the most effective ways to keep girls in STEM is through mentorship, such as bringing in current college students as mentors to K-12 classrooms. We will implement such a program through the Women in Science group, partnering with public schools across northern Colorado.

As part of the Science Network Mentor Program, we learned about the importance of ‘democratizing’ science, and employing our skill sets as scientists to be tools for the community to employ, rather than trying to engineer solutions from the outside. For us, this means not assuming that this gap in STEM enrollment originates from the same place for all schools, or even all individuals. We need to begin conversations with teachers, with students, and with families about what opportunities they crave, what barriers they face, and what skills and tools would be the most useful. Furthermore, this work is necessarily intersectional; building gender diversity in STEM is only one of the facets by which we must work to diversify our STEM workforce. The Women in STEM group will collaborate closely with other cultural centers across campus, ensuring that we are diverse across all identities.

Lesson 3: We are all in this together

Study after study demonstrates that one of the most effective, efficient, and powerful ways to change perspectives and encourage diversity in STEM is through mentorship. Women in engineering paired with a female mentor, for example, experienced more of a sense of belonging, motivation, and confidence in their work, as well as greater aspiration to remain in the field. Through this Women in STEM club at UNCO, we will work to tie mentors and mentees together through all levels of education, putting college students with high school and middle school students and bringing in professionals in STEM fields to mentor the college students in turn.

Beyond this, we must work to change the entire ecosystem within which women in STEM fields work. For example, we will strongly advocate for family-friendly policies at the state and local level, including paid family leave. At the local level, we will lobby for the maintenance and expansion of university policies such as sabbaticals which facilitate continued engagement with STEM research, particularly for women and minority faculty who historically take on disproportionate service and teaching loads during typical semesters. Through this three-pronged approach of building community, facilitating mentorship, and advocating for education- and research-friendly policies at all levels of government, it is my truest hope and expectation that we can make the STEM workforce in Colorado a reflection of the powerful diversity of people that call this state home.

 

Marian Hamilton holds a PhD in Evolutionary Anthropology from the University of New Mexico. She is a former middle school science teacher and currently an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado, where she researches human evolution and paleoenvironments. Dr. Hamilton is wild about women in STEM, educational equity, wildlife and habitat conservation, and her dog, Gedi. 

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.

Puerto Rico: Maria’s Laboratory for Scientific Collaboration

CienciaPR’s education specialist, Elvin Estrada, trains educators at the Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico on how to use the Foldscope, a low-cost paper microscope, as part of CienciaPR’s Science in Service of Puerto Rico initiative. Each of the 500 students participating in the project will receive the instrument free of charge to observe the biological diversity in a terrestrial ecosystem that was impacted by Hurricane Maria. Photo courtesy of Mónica Feliú-Mójer.

Reposted with permission by STEM + Culture Chronicle, a publication of SACNAS – Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, Ubaldo Córdova-Figueroa’s primary concern was for the safety of his students and research assistants. With communications shut down, it took over a month for the professor of chemical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico–Mayagüez to contact them all. “Having no access to my students or my research-lab members was very painful because I didn’t know what was going on with them. I just wanted to know that they were fine,” he says. Everyone was okay but became anxious when research was interrupted for months. Córdova-Figueroa had to reassure them that it was okay, to relax, and wait for things to return to normal. It was, after all, a catastrophe.

Córdova-Figueroa says many scientists are concerned about their future in research at the university, which was facing a fiscal cliff before the hurricane. “They are afraid that they may not get the support they need to recover,” he says. But consensus is building that devastation from last year’s hurricanes could change the way science is approached in Puerto Rico. The post-hurricane conditions provide a unique environment to study. There is also an opportunity to develop local, non-scientific and scientific collaborations as well as attract outside collaborators to work together across disciplines. The results could impact resiliency and innovation both locally and globally.

Local collaborations

“When you lose energy as we did after Maria, not only does your grid go down but with it goes your health system, your communication, your transportation system, your food distribution system, your education system,” says Associate Professor of Social Sciences at the Mayagüez campus, Cecilio Ortíz-García, “But none of those realms, in non-emergency times, talk to each other or understand each other. It’s time to establish a platform for cross-communication.”

The University only has a few pictures of the classrooms because most places were difficult to get through and some were forbidden because of fungus contamination.

Ortíz-García is on the steering committee of the National Institute of Island Energy and Sustainability (INESI) at the University of Puerto Rico. INESI promotes interdisciplinary collaboration on energy and sustainability problems and has a network of 70 resources across the university’s 11 precincts. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, it has been able to help establish collaboration at local, community, and municipal levels as well as with some of the stakeholders, says Professor of Social Sciences at the Mayagüez campus, Marla Pérez-Lugo, who is also on the steering committee.

The absence of strong federal and central government involvement following Hurricane Maria has prompted organized innovation and resilience on local levels that was never expected Ortíz-García says. The mayor of San Sebastian pulled together volunteers who were certified electricians, ex power-utilities employees, retired employees, and others like private construction contractors that had heavy equipment. “They put those guys together and started electrifying neighborhoods on their own,” said Professor Ortíz-García.

Solving real-life problems

Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) is a non-profit organization that promotes science communication, education, and research in Puerto Rico. They received a grant from the National Science Foundation to implement project-based science lessons on disaster-related topics. The middle school education program features lesson activities that are related to what’s happening in Puerto Rico as well as culturally relevant.

The first lessons implemented included how to properly wash hands when clean water is scarce and understanding the effect of the storm on the terrestrial environment.

Educators at the Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico learn how to use the Foldscope.

Each child is given a paper microscope and asked to conduct a research project to answer a question they have about how the storms have affected the environment. At the end of June, the students will share their findings with the community.

The project is funded by a RAPID grant, which is awarded for one to two years to respond to emergency or one-off events. The Foundation has awarded about 40 grants associated with Hurricane Maria, according to their website. Most of them are RAPID grants and about 25 percent of them have been awarded to scientists in Puerto Rico.

RAPID grants associated with Hurricane Maria have required INESI to adapt its vision, says Professor Pérez-Lugo. INESI’s basic mission is to look at Puerto Rico from a local perspective to insert local knowledge into the policy process. But the flood of effort coming from outside universities has required them to attempt to identify and coordinate those doing research and relief work in Puerto Rico. INESI initially counted 20 universities conducting research, but other initiatives and projects involving energy and the electric system have been identified since. In some cases, there were three or four teams from the same university working in Puerto Rico that were unaware of the presence of the other teams. “So, these universities found out about their colleagues through us,” said Pérez-Lugo.

The workers and researchers tended to be concentrated in only a couple of municipalities, leaving many areas neglected. INESI coordinated their efforts to avoid fatigue, to avoid saturation in some areas, and to distribute aid in a more just and equal way Pérez-Lugo says.

Updating approaches to disaster

Most classrooms at the University of Puerto Rico were filled with water, some with vegetation, and many with broken equipment.

According to Ortíz-García, INESI was founded prior to the arrival of Hurricane Maria in recognition of the flaws associated with the fragmented organization at the university. Like most universities, it is organized to accomplish the goals of teaching, research, and service, which is an organization best suited to the scientific processes of discovery, knowledge creation, and scientific inquiry. “But these are different times,” says Ortíz-García, “with problems that are not aligned with a fragmented, unidisciplinary approach.”

“But that’s an outdated approach because now we know that energy transitions are embedded in everything that society values, from water to health, to safety and security, and to food. So, multiple organizations will need to be involved to solve the problem and they need a common language to fix something.”

INESI has been working toward taking the University of Puerto Rico to the next level of university organization, with networks of interest and practice within and throughout interconnecting disciplines. “Instead of concentrating on a scientific development in one discipline, scientists need to concentrate on the effective design of solutions to issues that don’t belong to any discipline, like climate change,” says Ortíz-García.

Collaborative convergence platforms such as INESI can foster interdisciplinary dialogue and the generation of solutions for these issues. Now, inspired by the influx of representatives from other universities to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, INESI wants to build a platform of platforms.

RISE Puerto Rico

A group representing an inter-university collaborative convergence platform will meet for a foundational catalyst workshop at the end of June. Twenty-seven people from ten universities have already accepted the invitation and will meet face to face for the first time.

“The platform that we’re looking to build here, we’ve already preliminarily named it RISE Puerto Rico, which stands for Resiliency through Innovations in Sustainable Energy,” Pérez-Lugo says.

Starting these dialogs now will go a long way, Ortíz-García says, in reorganizing academic environments toward finding the solutions necessary to fix these problems. “In addition, it can foster innovation in ways our own organizational structure could never, ever think of because you would have spin-off after spin-off of academic conversations not only with the scientists but also community and other stakeholders’ knowledge that is out there from leading these events themselves,” he says.

Córdova-Figueroa is optimistic about the research opportunities in Puerto Rico.

He would like to see many scientists from around the world take advantage of the myriad research opportunities available. “Come to Puerto Rico,” he says. “You will learn something great here.”

Dr. Kimber Price is a science communications graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter: @LowcountryPearl

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.

Why We Need to Humanize Chemists, and All Scientists

Silver Microscope Photo: Alexandra Gelle

Manifesto of a passionate chemistry PhD student, tired of having to fight prejudices when introducing herself.

Why humanizing scientists and their research is essential

Science has shaped our society and everyday life, and yet the public and many policymakers neglect, discredit, and underfund research and scientists due to their negative perceptions of the field. Over the last few years, public trust towards scientists has been challenged. According to recent studies by Fiske and Dupree, the public describes scientists as competent, but not as warmly as they describe doctors or nurses. Yet, scientists need to be able to effectively communicate their research and engage with the public and policymakers to ensure that the decisions that impact all of us are based on evidence.

Graphics and tables are not enough to establish a relationship between scientists and society. The public needs emotional connections with scientists and scientists need the public’s trust to be able to disseminate reliable and pertinent research. In addition, although technology now provides wide access, fake and sensational news are more accessible and can damage scientists’ image. This is why restoring the public’s trust towards scientists and science is crucial.

What chemists can do for you

Have you ever wondered what medicine would be like without the molecules that have been carefully designed by chemists? How would engineers conceive of laptops and cellphones without the development of batteries and electrochemistry?

When introducing myself as a PhD student in chemistry, I often see fear, rejection, or incomprehension in people’s eyes. I have always thought chemistry was fascinating, entertaining, and useful. Unfortunately in my experience, some of the public seems to be reluctant and suspicious when speaking about chemistry. Chemists are commonly pictured as environmental destroyers, eager for explosions, who are disconnected from the impacts of their laboratories and experiments. However, reality is quite the opposite.

It would be a lie to say that fire and explosions are not part of every chemist’s life, however, chemists are pursuing a more noble goal: helping people by improving their health and quality of life, and preserving the environment. Chemists’ ultimate objective is to better understand the behavior of molecules and use elements available on Earth to develop high-performance materials, new drugs, and more sustainable processes. One of the most extensively shared examples of chemistry in media outlets is the environmental and health damages caused by the misuse of scientific knowledge, such as chemical bombs.

While the public frustration and confusion is understandable, chemists should not be blamed for their discoveries but instead work diligently for their ethical and just applications. Chemistry, and science generally, are key to our lives and the public often neglects its importance. However the work of scientists is meaningless if not shared.

Why I decided to study chemistry

//scientific-illustrations.com

Chemists study reactions intending to develop new molecules or to enhance the efficiency of chemical processes. My PhD projects focus on the latter, in the field of catalysis. Building new molecules requires breaking and eventually forming bonds between atoms. Therefore, chemical reactions are often energy-intensive and generate large amounts of waste. In catalysis, chemical reactions can be sped up upon the addition of a substance, called a catalyst, which increases the efficiency of a chemical transformation. Moreover, catalysts can often be recycled and reused in other reactions.

My PhD focuses on the use of sunlight as an energy source and silver as a catalyst to promote popular reactions. Such catalysts which can be activated by sunlight are called photocatalysts and fall within the field of Green Chemistry – field aiming to reduce the ecological footprint of chemical industries by developing more environmentally-friendly reaction conditions and reducing chemical waste.

I always appreciate sharing my research and can do that more effectively when scientists and the public respect each other and work to ensure science is used for evidence-based policymaking, for knowledge-sharing, and for justice . Next time you see a chemist, or any other scientist, let’s talk about how we can learn from one another and be stronger together. How about we chat over a cup of caffeine (C8H10N4O2) extracted by dihydrogen monoxide (H2O) or a glass of ethanol (C2H6O)?

 

Originally from France, Alexandra Gellé moved to Montréal, QC, Canada to start her undergraduate degree in Chemistry in 2013. She is now a PhD student and is passionate about science communication and outreach. Alexandra is also the president of Pint of Science Canada, an international festival promoting science through speaker series in bars.

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.

Illa Maru, http://scientific-illustrations.com

We Need Better Data about What Is Killing American Prisoners. It’s Probably the Heat.

American Climate Prospectus

DC is in the middle of a swampy heat wave right now, with temperatures exceeding 90oF regularly. My peers and I can joke about getting drenched in sweat from the walk from the metro to school because we have an air-conditioned building to look forward to. Any heat-related discomfort is temporary for us. Prisoners in our country don’t have this luxury, and it may be killing more of them than we realize.

If you go to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) website, you can download datasets showing the reasons inmates died over the last few years. As part of my studies, I accessed this data and found a shocking lack of resolution.

 

Photo credit: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Every death that isn’t due to an inmate killing themselves or another inmate is written off as “natural causes.” Further exploration of the BJS site or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sites yield a little more information about the burden of certain diseases like diabetes and heart disease, but overall there is not much public information or raw data about what is actually killing prisoners in America.

Recent studies into the effects of extreme heat exposure (which we can loosely define as constant exposure to heat exceeding 86 degrees F based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration heat index) suggest there might be a sizable burden of heat-related illnesses. In order to dive deeper on this issue, I started to look at Texas specifically, due in part to the excellent journalism of groups like the Texas Tribune and the Marshall Project. The writers on these teams have been tracking policy changes as well as the risk factors for susceptibility to heat, and bring up some excellent points.

First, there is some evidence that prisons make the incarcerated “age faster,” which is to say they have the health issues commonly associated with populations a decade or more older than them. This includes dampening the nervous system’s ability to regulate heat, which decreases the body’s ability to combat effects of extreme heat exposure. This issue, and the fact that there is an increasing population of prisoners older than 50, means that prisoners may be more susceptible to heat exposure than the general population.

Second, about a third of American prisoners also experience mental health issues, and another sizable chunk experience chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. The medications for these conditions include psychotropics which further dampen the nervous system response to heat, as well as diuretics and anticholinergics, which tamper with bodily functions like sweat and urination. As a result, many prisoners may not even be able to sweat properly, and retain urine to the point of danger for kidney disease and hypertension.

But of course, the most important part of heat-related illness is the heat itself. And in Texas, the state with one of the hottest summers in the United States, this is the major killer. Almost 75% of Texas prisons don’t have air-conditioned residential areas. This is unacceptable now, and is even more concerning when you look at climate projections for the next 80 years.

As you can see, Texas is hot, and it’s only going to get hotter. Prisoners in Texas, and the rest of the country, are already feeling the impacts of heat. Last summer, a particularly disturbing video was shared on Facebook, where prisoners’ screams for help could be heard from outside. They repeated “Help Us, Help Us, It’s Too Hot, We Can’t Breathe.” The viral nature of this video pushed the St. Louis prison to implement better air-conditioning, but that was just a small start to addressing the larger issue.

Anecdotal reports will never be taken seriously by any institutional body, and they cannot inspire political will on the level that is needed to protect prisoner health. This brings me back to data resolution. Researchers need access to more information about prisoner health in order to better understand this issue and make a compelling case for better heat management. For starters, we need more data on the actual temperatures and humidity levels  inside of our prisons. As part of my graduate coursework I wrote a petition which calls for a public data collection schedule which includes urinalysis and blood work data along with temperature data.

You have the ability to send a similar petition the governmental bodies which control what data is collected and made public. You can use this template to petition the Office of Justice Programs, or your state’s correctional body. Finally, as further reading, I encourage you to look at the 2015 report out of Columbia Law School which examines the challenges climate change will pose for correctional institutes in the coming years.

Anyun Chatterjee is finishing his masters in environmental health at George Washington this fall. He is a researcher with the Cleveland based network of psychiatrist and mental health providers known as BRAIN. During his time in DC he started the research group MilkenGroup.com, based on the principles of informational equality and purpose based research.

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.

Op-Eds for Cheeseheads: Training New Scientists as Communicators in Wisconsin Food Systems Policy

“Facts aren’t impartial. They have great implications for people. They threaten people.” A few dozen graduate students and handful of public employees and farmers in the room nod thoughtfully over Margaret’s comment, laughing as she says, “It has never been a rational world!” On a June afternoon at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this group is looking to a panel of experts on science communication and advocacy with big questions: how should new scientists start public communication, and where do they have leverage in food systems policy?

Communication and advocacy in Midwestern agriculture

Cattle grazing near Madison, WI

Wisconsin is a unique place to work in agriculture and food systems, which is what drew many people in the room to work here. The state is home to a huge breadth of agricultural activities across its 68,500 farms, with many examples of progressive, farmer-led research and stewardship and initiatives with cutting edge technology. However, even with agricultural sciences and industry woven into state culture, Wisconsin faces the same communication challenges we see in the news across the nation: tension between a vision of agriculture as a business, a science, and as a public service, conflicts between conservation and production, and differences in urban-rural priorities that leave plenty of new researchers wondering how to connect with the public and legislators over agricultural issues.

We organized a science communication and advocacy workshop with help from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Science for Public Good Fund after hearing graduate students in plant sciences wanted to improve their writing, speaking, and tweeting to connect with public policy on food systems. In addition to developing our abilities to frame our research to different audiences and issues, we wanted to learn more about how to advocate and contribute to new policy. Here’s a little of what we learned.

Use language thoughtfully

Eric Hamilton and Kelly Tyrrell brought their experience as science writers at UW-Communications on writing to connect with different audiences. They emphasized the importance of clear, straightforward language, and told the group to always avoid jargon or define it, thinking about buzzwords that carry baggage or might alienate your audience.

Keep it relevant

Workshop participants practice writing a “hook” for the beginning of an op-ed

To make an op-ed or blog post about your work timely, Eric and Kelly suggested using current events related to frame your research or expertise, whether in recent news or through the anniversaries of historical events. Google alerts and organizational newsletters are tools to help researchers stay tuned in to new research or activities on a given topic. Connecting with a new audience on their values and experience is more effective than rebutting their ideas point by point, and finding a topic of connection can frame your story or ideas. Finally, they encouraged us to get out there and use our resources: “the more you write, the more you’ll figure out how to write and what to write about.”

Use language thoughtfully

Eric Hamilton and Kelly Tyrrell brought their experience as science writers at UW-Communications on writing to connect with different audiences. They emphasized the importance of clear, straightforward language, and told the group to always avoid jargon or define it, thinking about buzzwords that carry baggage or might alienate your audience.

Keep it relevant

To make an op-ed or blog post about your work timely, Eric and Kelly suggested using current events related to frame your research or expertise, whether in recent news or through the anniversaries of historical events. Google alerts and organizational newsletters are tools to help researchers stay tuned in to new research or activities on a given topic. Connecting with a new audience on their values and experience is more effective than rebutting their ideas point by point, and finding a topic of connection can frame your story or ideas. Finally, they encouraged us to get out there and use our resources: “the more you write, the more you’ll figure out how to write and what to write about.”

Recommended resources for researchers and new communicators: COMPASS, CaSP, California Council for Science and Technology, TheOpEd Project, Pew Trust, National Academies, The Open Notebook, Medium, The Conversation, Massive Science 

Greta Landis is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her agroecology research is focused on conservation partnerships and decision-making for grazing management on public land. She also works for University of Wisconsin-Extension as a student evaluator.

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: G. Landis Photo: T. Campbell

The sociopolitical evolution of a scientist: incorporating advocacy into my graduate school experience

During September of 2016, I was excited to begin my bioengineering master’s program in Boston, home to the world’s largest community of biomedical researchers. But on November 8th, the US political landscape abruptly transformed, and suddenly my research studying how cancer spreads throughout the body felt microscopic. The aftermath of the 2016 election forced me to examine my identity; I saw how the wave of anti-LGBT rhetoric and violence left my community feeling unsafe. Raised by a family of immigrants, I saw my lab mate barred from entering the country after visiting her family in Iran. And as a scientist, I saw how the spread of misinformation caused public distrust in science, permeating our highest levels of government.

I’ve always believed that science could and should have an impact on people’s lives. My interest in science was sparked by my cardiologist, who explained how engineers built the device that allowed her to visualize my heart’s electrical pathways, find my arrhythmia, and fix it. But in this climate, I worried that scientific research would not have the same impact on society – that our knowledge would not be reflected in our policies.

Finding my community: early career scientists making an impact

Amidst the barrage of misinformation and climate change deniers in positions of power, I knew that input from scientists was needed, but wasn’t sure how I could make an impact as a graduate student. I started attending MIT’s Science Policy Initiative (SPI), and discussions to plan SPI’s annual visit to Capitol Hill during STEM on The Hill Day gave me a sense of purpose. We were there for the same reason – to ensure scientists have a role in policy-making.

On the hill, I met with staffers from Senator Coons’ office to advocate against proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health budget and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s SeaGrant program. Fortunately, the senator’s office agreed, and we asked Senator Coons to circulate a dear-colleague letter to gather wide support in opposing these cuts. A small but important endeavor, this ask made the meeting effective and opened the door for future dialogue. Overall, this experience was valuable training in communicating my science to policy-minded people.

Science advocacy on campus

I realized effective advocacy and communication were skills most graduate students were interested in, but didn’t know where to find. I learned of a grant offered by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) to expand community-based science advocacy. I was awarded a Science for Public Good Fund to implement a science advocacy workshop series at Northeastern University.

Planning a three-part workshop by myself was no easy task, and I suffered from a serious case of impostor syndrome – there were moments where I felt unprepared to lead a workshop on advocacy. However, the mentorship provided by the staff at UCS helped me craft an effective event. They connected me with resources and experts in science advocacy, some of whom served as speakers. Importantly, the workshop helped pull together a group of graduate students whose passion for science-backed decision making formed the base of a new advocacy community at Northeastern. I realized it’s never too early to reach out and find a group of graduate students with similar passions to help initiate more formal skill-based programming efforts.

Citizen-scientists: Re-thinking graduate education and the roles of scientists outside the lab

Planning the workshop would not have been possible without leaning on my network of science communicators. Be that as it may, more structured university-driven science advocacy resources are needed at the student level. Likewise, while my experience in science advocacy took place in the context of my university, graduate programs must place more curricular emphasis on communicating the real-world implications of the important science being generated by their graduates.

For now, us graduate students need to reclaim our graduate school experiences to be that source of change. We need to push our universities and fellow scientists to think about how their scientific findings impact society, and more generally how their scientific training is valuable to the policy-making process. Building on existing university support systems to create student groups with funding and meeting space helps establish a local network. University government liaison offices are often willing to support student-driven efforts, and meeting with state representatives can be an easy way to start conversations and build long-lasting relationships with policy-makers.

While we as scientists gather information, as citizens and inhabitants of the world, we have a responsibility to ask “How is my work being used in the world?” STEM graduates are asking this question now, more than ever. To support early career scientists stepping into these roles, we need to support motivated graduate students in building networks, seeking out real-world experiences, and demonstrating to universities the importance of supporting these efforts.

Alex Hruska is a bioengineering PhD student at Brown University, working to develop new biomimetic models to study cancer cell invasion and phenotypic plasticity. He is passionate about amplifying the role of scientists in policy and governance. Find him on Twitter @alex_hruska

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.

 

What Congress Does Next Could Cost Farmers and Taxpayers Billions

Management intensive rotational grazing of beef cattle is one example of a conservation practice incentivized by CSP. Here, the author moves cows at the Michigan State University AgBioResearch Center in Lake City, Michigan Photo: Paige Stanley

This year has been hard for all farmers—they have faced an ongoing trade war from the Trump administration and an uphill battle with climate change. But farmers who want to use sustainable practices are being particularly hard hit, as their interests are sidelined for the benefit of agribusinesses. And for the rest of us, 2018 has—almost like clockwork—shown the failure of half-hearted efforts to control farm-sourced water pollution that contaminates drinking water and destroys fisheries.  

The House Committee on Agriculture’s farm bill proposal to eliminate a program that offers tangible hope in difficult times is the biggest blow yet. Not only is the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) popular among farmers, it addresses agricultural challenges and delivers environmental benefits that impact us all. As the deadline to complete the 2018 farm bill approaches, Congress should think long and hard before giving CSP the axe. According to new UCS analysis, they’d sacrifice as much as $4.7 billion dollars in annual taxpayer value to do it.

Maybe you’re not familiar with the farm bill (no one completely understands it), or maybe you’re more concerned with other happenings, like the current attack on science at the EPA. I can’t say I blame you. But if you like to eat food and drink clean water—and you want strong returns on your tax dollars—then listen up.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of today’s farming system

Industrialized US agriculture is highly productive, but it comes at an enormous cost. UCS has documented how the two most widely-grown commodity crops, corn and soy, are failing to feed people and are grown in ways that degrade our soil, increase damage from droughts and floodspollute drinking water, and create vast dead zones along our coasts. Industrialized animal agriculture often leads to even worse outcomes for the environment.

Luckily, there are better methods of agricultural production, and scaling them up is within reach. Conservation and ecologically based farming (agroecology) can not only prevent pollution and soil loss, they can help regenerate ecosystemsincrease productivity, and improve farmer livelihoods. And while federal policies have played a big role in incentivizing many of today’s damaging practices, there are also federal programs that deliver solutions.

Introducing the Conservation Stewardship Program

Conservation practices can improve soil health and soil ecosystem function, which leads to reduced erosion and runoff, improved water quality, and taxpayer savings.

The five-year farm bill funds several such programs run by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Some, like the Conservation Reserve Program, pay for farmers to retire sensitive land from production. Others, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), termed “working lands programs,” incentivize farmers to adopt more sustainable practices on farm lands that stay in production. Although these programs make up only 6 percent of total farm bill spending, they pack in co-benefits like soil, air and water quality, climate change mitigation, and wildlife habitat. Tiny, but mighty.

Of these, CSP is the crown jewel. It is the only program that promotes comprehensive, whole farm sustainability. As the largest conservation program covering over 72 million acres, CSP targets high priority sustainability concerns and ensures we’re getting the most bang for our buck. Not only does this program pay for practices that are scientifically proven to produce results, such as resource conserving crop rotations, management intensive rotational grazing, cover cropping, and establishment of wildlife habitats, it pays for farmers to implement such practices in combination. And that is where the money is, literally, as our analysis shows.

CSP offers taxpayers an eye-popping deal

We sought to quantify the return on investment of public dollars in CSP and compare the effects that Senate and House farm bill changes to CSP could have on farmers and taxpayers. You can dig into our detailed methodology but, in short, we did this by considering the cost of CSP to taxpayers (according to the USDA budget) and estimating the benefits that CSP is known to deliver, including things like reduced erosion, increased grazing land productivity, improved air quality, carbon sequestration, and more.

Benefits included costs savings to farmers (like reduced need for fertilizer) and consumers (like reduced expenses for contaminated water), as well as the projected benefits of other ecosystem services (like increased productivity and reduced greenhouse gases).

Here’s what we found:

  • For every dollar of taxpayer money invested into CSP, we get about $3.95 in returned value. This value is notably higher than ROIs estimated for other conservation programs, thanks to CSP’s holistic approach and synergistic benefits that maximize returns.
  • Using this ROI, we estimated that the House bill eliminating CSP would result in lost benefits of $4.7 billion dollars per year. Pause for shock effect (I know we did). These are costs that would impact us ALL- from increased input costs for farmers, increased environmental degradation, and risking food security with a changing climate.
  • Conversely, we estimate that the Senate bill would lead to a net increase of benefits likely valued at around $1.2 billion dollars per year. Though the Senate bill does include some CSP funding cuts, it also improves the program in ways that emphasize high-value practices, so it’s more efficient.

The chart below summarizes the economic impacts of each of our farm bill scenarios.

Change in benefits calculated across four possible farm bill outcomes: 1) House bill is adopted and CSP is eliminated, 2) Senate bill is adopted, but without program improvements, and 3) Senate bill is adopted but with improvements resulting in a) a small increase (10 percent) to the expected ROI in both the Minimal and Likely ROI scenarios and b) a larger (33 percent) increase in both the Minimal and Likely ROI scenarios (see appendix for more details)

Farmers want—and need—incentives to pursue conservation goals

This program is in high demand. An average of between 50 and 75 percent of farmers and ranchers who apply each year are turned away. Recently, more than 165 farmers and ranchers wrote a letter to the House of Representatives Ranking Member Collin Peterson urging him to not only maintain the program, but to keep the promise of enrolling 10 million new acres per year. The results of a survey of more than 2,800 farmers earlier this year provided even more evidence that farmers are interested in this type of support from the farm bill.

The future fate of the CSP rests in the hands of those negotiating the 2018 farm bill. With the current farm bill set to expire on September 30, 2018, the House and Senate agriculture committees are scrambling to reauthorize a bill in time. Considering the intense backlash from farmers on Trump’s current tariff war and hot debates on proposed cuts to SNAP, this egregious crime of side-stepping the environment by cutting CSP is happening largely under the radar.

It’s illogical to eliminate, or even cut, a program that so efficiently provides broad-ranging environmental benefits to so many people across the country. Farmers are begging to keep it. Taxpayers benefit from it. The environment depends on it. So, while the House is busy trying to eliminate it – which would effectively cost us billions of dollars – all evidence suggests that strengthening it should be the real priority.

House and Senate negotiators are now deciding on the final outlines of the 2018 farm bill, including what happens to CSP. Tell them to prioritize this and other proven, science-based policies and programs that are good for all of us.

Paige L. Stanley has a Master’s of Animal Science for Michigan State University and is currently a Doctoral Researcher at the University of California Berkeley in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. She is interested in transitions toward sustainable and humane livestock production systems with a focus in beef cattle. Her research is currently focused on farmer and rancher barriers to entry to adopting sustainable management practices.

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: Paige Stanley NRCS/Ron Nichols, Flickr Creative Commons

Bringing Communication Back Into Science: Incentivizing #scicomm Efforts for Early Career Scientists

Photo: Laura Hamilton

About 10% of STEM PhD students ultimately go on to secure a coveted tenured position at a university. That is a discouraging statistic for those keen on an academic career track, especially considering that the overall number of new PhDs per year far outpaces the number of new faculty jobs per year.

Of course, that percentage may vary by specific discipline or sub-field, but the overall sentiment is the same no matter where you look — staying on the academic track has become the “alternate career.” Yet, landing one of these coveted faculty positions remains the pinnacle of success to many academics, so young scientists increasingly feel pressure to spend a majority of their time writing papers to be competitive for tenure-track positions. They might not even land that job when all is said and done anyway.

Worse, more time writing papers means less time for other enjoyable activities, such as education and outreach, that would benefit the general public as a whole. The net result is that the general public often learns of new scientific information through a complicated reporting path that can grossly distort the original message, just like in a game of “Telephone.”

From correlation to doomsday

Imagine this: your research group discovers a new, small object orbiting the Sun many times farther away than Neptune. You know it won’t affect the lives of hardly anyone, except maybe your collaborator down the hall who works on similar topics. But the properties of this new object are weirdly similar to a small collection of other known objects that might suggest a new undiscovered planet in the distant solar system.

News of your discovery is picked up first by your institution and then by other news outlets. You enjoy your time in the spotlight as people talk about your new discovery. Most outlets get most of the facts right. However, the concept of new and undiscovered planets in our solar system is not a new one, and a few outlets conflate this latest proposed planet with Planet X or Nibiru. Next thing you know, there’s a video on the internet claiming your new object is actually Planet X or Nibiru and is going to hit the Earth and destroy all civilization. It even goes so far as to accuse NASA of covering up the impending apocalypse.

The scenario just described is a true story that recently happened to my research group. While the video in question is admittedly a conspiracy video likely followed by believers of conspiracy theories, the sentiment of this story is all too familiar to many researchers. Too often, scientific results are subject to a game of Telephone that distort the original result beyond recognition. These distorted results then can influence the beliefs of the public or even make their way into misled governmental policy decisions. A much better scenario would be bypassing Telephone altogether, allowing the scientists themselves to share their work directly with the public.

Research vs. outreach, or research + outreach?

While the idea of having the scientists themselves share their results seems excellent in theory, the current cut-throat and competitive nature of academia renders that infeasible. The end result is that many scientists, who are frequently early career scientists, often yearn to do outreach work and acknowledge its importance, but they don’t have time to spare away from their research.

I’ve seen this exact phenomenon at play in my collaboration, the Dark Energy Survey, where I have been both very active in outreach efforts and chair of the Early Career Scientists Committee. With terabytes upon terabytes of beautiful images of the Southern Hemisphere sky, the science communication possibilities are practically endless. But the person-power available to make those scicomm possibilities a reality is painfully limited. A large part of the problem is simply that there are no incentives or rewards for doing outreach work. In fact, scientists who prioritize outreach are often punished for doing so in the form of one or two fewer papers to their names.

We need to reevaluate our priorities. Passion for outreach and science communication definitely exists, but the incentives don’t. In an era where young scientists need to publish more frequently to stay competitive for those coveted tenure-track faculty positions, there’s not much time for other things, including science outreach and communication. Publishing one more peer-reviewed paper won’t convince your uncle to pay taxes to fund basic science or your senator to vote “No” on that bill with detrimental consequences for your field — but science communication will.

 

Stephanie Hamilton is a physics graduate student and NSF graduate fellow at the University of Michigan. For her research, she studies the orbits of the small bodies beyond Neptune in order learn more about the Solar System’s formation and evolution. As an additional perk, she gets to discover many more of these small bodies using a fancy new camera developed by the Dark Energy Survey Collaboration. When she gets a spare minute in the midst of hectic grad school life, she likes to read sci-fi books, binge TV shows, write about her travels or new science results, or force her cat to cuddle with her. Find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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.

Federal Health Study on Drinking Water Contaminants Calls into Question Safety of Nation’s Drinking Water Supply

The public water supply in Hyannis, Massachusetts, one of the communities currently dealing PFAS contamination. Photo: A. Fox. Courtesy of STEEP

On a late June evening in a high school auditorium in Exeter, NH, dozens of people stepped up to the microphone to tell EPA about contaminated drinking water in their communities. They described unexplained illnesses in their families, expressed frustration about inadequate government response, and shared their guilt and fear about their children’s exposures to toxics and the possible long-term effects. “Years before becoming pregnant, I was educating people on how to eliminate environmental toxics from their personal care products and food. That’s why this was so devastating,” said Alayna Davis, co-founder of a local community group called Testing for Pease. “I could not prevent this water from contaminating my son’s body.” 

This event was the first in a series of community listening sessions that EPA will host nationwide on a class of chemicals called PFASs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—toxic chemicals that, in recent years, have been detected in drinking water supplies across the country serving millions of Americans. A new federal report on PFAS health effects suggests that drinking water guidelines developed by EPA are not protective enough and should be lower. Scientists, environmental organizations, and community groups are urging the agency to take strong steps to address the problem. How the agency will respond is unclear at this point. What we do know, however, is that regardless of EPA action, the problem will not go away anytime soon unless we reduce our reliance on these chemicals and invest in safer alternatives.

A wake-up call

PFASs are ubiquitous. They’re used in stain-repellent furniture and carpets, waterproof clothing, nonstick cookware, and even some fast food packaging and dental floss. They can also end up in drinking water through waste released from chemical manufacturing sites as well as military bases and airports where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used. Due to their extreme persistence, these chemicals have been dubbed “forever chemicals.” PFASs are found in all of our bodies, and have been linked to cancers, developmental and reproductive toxicity, thyroid disease, immune system toxicity, and other effects.

In May, there was public outcry over efforts by the White House and EPA to delay the release of a federal health study on PFASs. The study was conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to internal EPA emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, officials were looking to avoid a “public relations nightmare.” Advocacy groups circulated online petitions and launched social media campaigns, pressing the government to release the report. On June 20, after much anticipation and controversy, ATSDR finally released a draft of the study, which found health risks associated with exposure to PFASs at levels much lower than the threshold levels estimated by EPA.

Weighing the evidence

Weighing in at 852 pages, the report is a comprehensive review of dozens of published studies on the toxicity of PFASs in humans and laboratory animals. While there are at least 4,700 PFASs on the global market, the report looked at just 14 types—ones the CDC monitors in the general population. Of these, ATSDR found it only had enough information on four—PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, and PFNA—to generate what are called minimal risk levels, or MRLs.

An MRL is essentially a measure of how much of a chemical a person can be exposed to each day without it causing health effects. MRLs encompass exposures from all sources, including drinking water, food, and consumer products. To calculate an MRL, scientists identify the lowest levels of exposure shown to cause harmful effects in humans or laboratory animals. They further reduce these levels by building in various safety factors to ensure that MRLs are protective for even the most vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children.

Safety in numbers

What got the attention of EPA officials earlier this year was that ATSDR’s new MRLs for PFOA and PFOS (the two most prevalent PFASs) are 6.7 and 10 times lower, respectively, than comparable values developed by EPA, which are known as reference doses (RfDs).

Although MRLs and RfDs are more or less the same thing, in this case, there were some differences in the way the two agencies generated their numbers. For PFOS, ATSDR and EPA both based their values on the same study that showed developmental effects in rats. However, in calculating its MRL, ATSDR lowered its value by a factor of 10 to account for additional studies showing effects on the immune system at low levels of exposure. In the case of PFOA, ATSDR and EPA relied on different studies altogether for their calculations.

What does this mean for our drinking water?

In May 2016, EPA issued a non-enforceable drinking water health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS, individually or combined. Dozens of public water supplies across the U.S. scrambled to meet this new advisory by shutting off polluted water sources and installing new treatment. For instance, on Cape Cod, where I have been studying unregulated drinking water contaminants including PFASs since 2010, the Hyannis Water System issued a temporary do-not-drink advisory to its customers. It has since spent millions of dollars to install large carbon filters to remove PFOS and PFOA from polluted wells.

The EPA develops its drinking water health advisories based on its RfDs, and includes assumptions about how much water people drink and how much of people’s exposure comes from other sources. Using the same methods and assumptions as EPA, when we translate ATSDR’s MRLs into drinking water guidelines, we get equivalent levels in drinking water of 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA—7 to 10 times lower than EPA’s. These values are also similar to those developed by New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, which recommends limits of 13 ppt for PFOS and 14 ppt for PFOA.

What’s next?

The public comment period for ATSDR’s report ends on August 20, and anyone can submit comments online. Meanwhile, back in New Hampshire, officials from EPA’s Washington DC and Boston offices have pledged to take action on PFASs in drinking water. Following a federal PFAS summit in May, EPA identified four areas for future action, including developing enforceable drinking water standards and groundwater cleanup recommendations to speed up remediation at contaminated sites.

These are good first steps. EPA should also consider ATSDR’s recent report and additional evidence of health effects at low levels of exposure. For instance, a study led by Harvard researcher Philippe Grandjean concluded that drinking water guidelines for PFOS and PFOA should be closer to 1 ppt based on immune system effects in children. In addition, studies in laboratory animals have found that low levels of PFOA exposure can impair mammary gland development. This is concerning because research shows that altered mammary gland development may increase breast cancer susceptibility later in life.

While PFOS and PFOA have received the most attention, it’s important to remember that PFASs are a broad group of chemicals, each with its own unique structure but united in their persistence. Although manufacturers have moved away from PFOS and PFOA, new alternative PFASs have emerged to fill their place, and these too raise concerns about effects in the environment and in people. Efforts to limit PFASs as a class rather than one at a time, such as Washington State’s recent ban on PFASs in food packaging and firefighting foam, are an important step in the right direction. Residents of affected communities across the U.S. are demanding action, and EPA needs to follow up on its promises by taking strong steps to protect public health.

 

Dr. Laurel Schaider is a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass. Her current research focuses on PFASs in drinking water and consumer products, including fast food packaging, and on septic systems as sources of unregulated drinking water contaminants. She is a researcher on the Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFASs (STEEP) Superfund Research Program at the University of Rhode Island and is a technical advisor to ATSDR’s Community Assistance Panel at the Pease Tradeport, a site of PFAS drinking water contamination. Find her on Twitter @laurelschaider.

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.

Courtesy of STEEP, photo by A. Fox.

If You Smell Something, Say Something: Identifying Local Natural Gas Leaks

Photo: W.carter/Wikimedia Commons

Walking my dog around my neighborhood one day, I caught a whiff of something very clearly – gas. At first, I noted the smell but assumed it was a fleeting odor and chalked it up to urban living. But soon I realized there was nothing fleeting about it.  I take the same route each day, and it became clear that specific locations  persistently smelled strongly of gas. Internal alarm bells went off in my head as I calculated the amount of gas necessary to be detected outside, in open air, uncontained. I asked my neighbors and the local utility company about the leaks – surely, I was not the only one who had noticed the smell, which led to my next question, what was being done about it? I was surprised to find that my neighbors had actually been smelling the leaks and alerting the utility companies for years. YEARS. I was shocked, and I wanted to know more.

Boston is leaking gas, and we are not alone

Click to enlarge.

I quickly learned Massachusetts depends heavily on natural gas and unfortunately has very old (and thus leak-prone) gas infrastructure. Natural gas leaks are associated with a host of negative impacts to our health, our environment, and our wallets. Methane, the main chemical released in a natural gas leak, is toxic and has been known to aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases. Leaks are damaging to local flora as methane displaces the oxygen in the soil, essentially suffocating plants and trees. Additionally, methane is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG), and the amount released from natural gas is affecting the climate at an alarming rate. Currently there is no law that requires utilities to pay for gas that is wasted and released into the atmosphere; instead companies build that cost into consumers’ bills. Most consumers are neither aware of the extent of the leaks nor that they are footing the bill. Through the UCS Science Network Mentor Program, I was connected with Dr. Nathan Phillips at Boston University who led a study in 2013 which quantified the location and concentration of leaks in Boston. This study identified more than 3,000 leaks, many of which had methane concentrations well above expected background levels. With miles and miles of aging infrastructure, this leaking problem is pervasive throughout the natural gas industry and is not unique to Boston.

 

Many small leaks = one big problem; many voices = one big solution 

Click to enlarge.

When combined, the thousands of natural gas leaks in Massachusetts account for a 10% increase in the state’s annual GHG footprint. Furthermore, just 7% of leaks are responsible for 50% of total methane emissions. Yet, methane from natural gas systems is not accounted for when tallying citywide GHG emissions in Boston’s climate action plan. As a citizen, it is easy for me to view a problem of this size as insurmountable, but as a scientist I know there is much to be gained from analyzing the data and sharing the results. For instance, the work outlined above prompted legislation requiring utilities to report the locations of leaks to the MA Department of Public Utilities. Subsequently, the nonprofit Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET), took it upon themselves to map utility-reported gas leaks and make this information clear and available to the public. Making science accessible for people to use to improve their community is a fundamental step forward. So far I have accomplished this in my community by holding information sessions and sharing the locations of leaks in Roxbury. Scientists and experts can make valuable contributions to advancing solutions in many ways and it all starts by joining the conversation.

 

Sarah Salois (@Sarah_Salois) is a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology with a focus on theoretical ecology at the Marine Science Center of Northeastern University in Nahant MA. Her dissertation work focuses on the assembly and dynamics of ecological metacommunities. She is passionate about understanding the vulnerabilities of ecosystems to a changing climate and other anthropogenic pressures.

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: W.carter/Wikimedia Commons

Science Citizenship: Making Science Actionable

Photo: InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

I decided to pursue a career in science in part because my high school chemistry teacher believed in me and sent me on a glacier expedition. My research as a Masters and PhD candidate brought me to remote corners of the earth, exploring glaciers at all latitudes. At otherworldly sites, I sampled the chemistry of snow and glacier melt. Most of my work was based in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, earth’s analogue to Mars. It was just 100 years after the first explorers set foot on these lands and numerous programs funded scientific research in extreme ecosystems, such as the McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research Program, which enabled scientists to study and understand trends through time.

During my 2006 field season, a helicopter of twelve national political leaders descended on our camp to learn about polar science. I spent ten minutes talking to Senator John McCain, who had recently tried to pass legislation on global warming with Senator Joe Lieberman. After the policymakers flew off, I returned to the field, energized by science and optimistic that climate policy was on its way.

Connecting students to local issues

InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

In 2011, I began my career at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. In Springfield, one in four elementary school children needs food assistance. Water quality is threatened by combined sewage overflow, which is amplified by aging infrastructure and climate inaction. While there were nominal resources to address these issues, the community response and rallying around this issue highlighted to me how important social capital is to problem-solving. Access to food and water for Springfield residents was at stake.

My experiences in Springfield and dismay at the lack of national climate policy impressed upon me that my students needed to learn about more than how earth and environmental systems work; they needed to know how their work connected to community and political decisions. Millennials are the largest block of voting aged citizens, but are the least likely to vote. They are inundated by partisan media but are able to quickly search for information for everyday decision making. As a whole, our recent graduates have discussed the big issues we face as a society, but have not reflected on how those issues manifest in their communities. Helping students see and realize their personal and local power is central to justice.

Each of my classes focuses on addressing major justice issues in our community. I see my introductory courses as science citizenship classes where students gain skills in evaluating the science they read and gain insight into the perspectives involved in local issue decision making. Our program features partnerships and working on community solutions-centered projects. Students evaluate carbon sequestration opportunities in vacant lots, soil health improvement strategies in places suffering from housing blight and soil lead contamination, and water quality solutions. Key to this work is having students reflect on their individual roles and what they have learned from community perspectives that informs next action steps.

Small changes in curricula can have a big impact

InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

During my sabbatical I’ve reflected deeply, reviewed resources on teaching to support democracy, and created and compiled teaching resources that help science faculty interested in designing their courses and activities to support democracy. These include design prompts for identifying civic activities that fit the current roles and interests of faculty and resources to design courses around local issues and build student civic agency, or consider how you, as an invited speaker or host of a seminar series might help students think about their future roles as scientists or constituents.

Are you helping your students understand how to form a science supported-opinion? Are you teaching your students how to evaluate and communicate using science? Are you showing them the complexity of scientific problem-solving and the views incorporated or missed in political decision-making? Some teaching activities that help build these skills appear here. While some of the specific examples relate to teaching geology and environmental science, these strategies apply to any science faculty interested in making connections between their discipline and positive societal transformation.

I encourage other faculty to join me in building science literacy, agency, and designing curriculum to support informed, equitable, and just decisions. If you are just getting started, start by making one change, such as including an example of local or student-relevant science in your class, or including an op-ed writing or social media assignment. If you want to learn more about your community, consider inviting local experts as guest speakers, or exploring locally-relevant data. This may be especially important in small towns that sometimes lack fact sheets on climate change, water, or other resource trends. Finally, you might directly show your students how to take action by hosting a science literacy or advocacy event in your class through campus programming. Faculty play an important role in making science actionable.

 

Sarah Fortner, Ph.D., (@erthsarah) serves as the Geological Society of America Scholar in Residence for the American Geosciences Institute. She is an Associate Professor of Geology and Environmental Science at Wittenberg University. Both programs are recognized for civic excellence by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

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 Time Has Come for Stronger Investment in Water Infrastructure – Especially for Underserved Communities

Photo: US Marines

When news of the Flint water crisis broke headlines, 21 million people across the country relied on water systems that violated health standards. Low-income communities, minority populations, and rural towns disproportionately deal with barriers to safe water. Drinking water challenges are complex: failing infrastructure, polluted water sources, and low capacity utility management are all part of the issue. Declining investment in water infrastructure over the last several decades has exacerbated the problem. Access to safe water is essential for human health and well being. Without serious investment in our water infrastructure we will continue to put communities at risk. As a country we must support existing funding sources for water infrastructure, develop new and innovative funding mechanism for long-term solutions, and more effectively prioritize the water needs of underserved communities. Furthermore we must support the science that helps us understand the nature and extent of these water challenges.

To be clear, the U.S. as a whole has very good water quality. The 21 million Americans without safe drinking water make up 6% of the country’s population. But this low percentage means nothing to those who can’t turn on their tap to quench their thirst, take a shower, or cook their food. A host of federal programs help reduce the number of communities without safe water. The EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), the USDA’s Rural Development Water Program, and HUD’s Community Block Grants, provide essential funding and low-interest loans to fill gaps in state and local resources. These projects not only replace dilapidated pipes and pumps, they also provide trainings for utility operators, support partnerships to consolidate resources, and hire experts to identify the cause of contamination. These opportunities are crucial in rural municipalities where water utility operators are commonly residents who volunteer their time.

Figure 1: Spatial clusters (hot spots) of health-based violations, 1982-2015. Hot spots of health based violations by county. Higher Z-scores indicate a higher number of health violations as compared to the average. Source: Maura Allaire et al. PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.1719805115. Copyright: National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

But how do we know if the communities that need the most help are getting it? In the case of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, states are required to prioritize systems with the highest health risk and the greatest financial need. An EPA database helps states identify which drinking water systems have the highest number of Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) violations, but it does not track whether these communities are considered low-income or disadvantaged.

For communities that can’t afford to take on the debt of a low-interest loan like the ones provided through the DWSRF and WIFIA, grants offer a debt-free alternative. The USDA’s Rural Development Water Program offers about ten types of grants for rural and small communities and tribes. The 2018 Congressional Budget also included a new EPA grant solely for addressing the water needs of disadvantaged communities.

Regardless of these efforts, there are communities without safe water. From 1982-2015, the number of drinking water violations actually increased. It is unclear what proportion of this increase is due to stricter safety regulations, more polluted waterways, degrading infrastructure, operating errors, or a combination of these factors. What we do know is that most of the health violations link back to pathogens and that the communities with the most violations are low-income and/or communities of color. A study from the American Water Works Association concluded “in communities with higher populations of black and Hispanic individuals, SDWA health violations are more common…it is in the poorest of communities that race and ethnicity seem to matter most in determining drinking water quality.” Housing density is also a factor. A study from the National Academy of Sciences showed that urban and suburban areas tended to have fewer violations than rural areas.

Figure 2: Total violations per water system by housing density category and income group. Violations represent the portion of water system-year observations with violations. Low-income counties have median household income below 75% of national median household income. Source: Maura Allaire et al. PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.1719805115. Copyright: National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

On top of increasing violations, investment in water infrastructure has decreased. An analysis from the Value of Water Campaign shows combined federal investment in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure has declined from 63 percent of total capital spending to 9 percent since 1977. State and local governments have also decreased their capital spending on water infrastructure in recent years. The EPA estimates we need to invest $472.6 billion in our drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years. Majority of this need can be attributed to rehabilitating, upgrading, and replacing existing infrastructure.

Federal investment in water infrastructure must continue and grow. Federal funds for infrastructure do more than build new systems and replace pipes; they support management and maintenance to achieve long-term goals. Communities all over the country struggle to have safe water. There are people working hard to address these issues, but more work is needed. Everyone has a role to play by supporting politicians who prioritize the needs of our failing water systems and the communities that rely on them. We must also support the science that has enabled us to better understand the nature and extent of these water challenges and their disproportionate impact on underserved communities. Safe water must no longer be a luxury.

Sara holds a Master’s in Environmental Management specializing in Water Resources Science and Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about many angles of water resources management. Currently Sara is working to reduce the loss of coastal wetlands as an ORISE Research Participant at the EPA.

Photo: US Marines

Uniting Young Scientists: Building a National Network for Grassroots Science Policy

According to a 2014 study by the American Institutes for Research, less than half of STEM Ph.D. graduates are employed in academic careers. Unfortunately, by nature of pursuing our degrees in academia it is difficult to identify mentors, expand networks, or practice skills for a non-academic career during graduate school. This challenge has been recognized by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in their recent report, which calls for a broad range of changes in the graduate education enterprise to make the system more student-centric and better prepare students for careers that address global societal needs.

Thankfully many early career scientists are already taking the task into their own hands. Students and postdocs are independently questioning how to best utilize their critical thinking skills in the real world, which should come as no surprise. Having recently dedicated ourselves to answering hard questions in science, it often feels like our duty to tackle the dearth of evidence-based policy making that is increasingly plaguing our country.

In search of sustainability and support

As one of these doctoral students in pursuit of a non-academic career path, I have found the grassroots support for science communication, advocacy, and policy training to be inspiring and ever-expanding. A nationwide survey that we conducted found that of the 22 early-career science policy groups surveyed, 45% have started in the past year and a half. However, many of these groups are run by the sheer willpower of their membership. Comprised mostly of graduate students, 60% of these groups operate on meager annual budgets of $1200 or less.

This is especially disappointing considering that there is significant public support for this: a Research!America survey showed that 84% of Americans believe that it is important for scientists to inform the public and policymakers about their research and its impact on society.

These student groups are essential for supporting and promoting graduate student engagement in science policy and advocacy within their communities, and are supplemented by national organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. However, the NASEM report points out the challenges that graduate students continue to face in an uphill battle against an academic culture that lacks incentives for science advocacy and civic engagement. Research productivity and peer-reviewed publications remain the singular metrics for traditional academic success, which creates reward systems that do not adequately prepare STEM graduate students to translate their knowledge into impact in an increasingly broad range of career paths.

Introducing the National Science Policy Network

On June 18, the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) was officially launched as a national network of science policy groups led by early career scientists. Our work focuses on providing training and resources that strengthen this burgeoning science policy-community and foster a network of engaged young scientists and engineers. We will be providing microgrants to support underfunded groups, collaborating with Research!America on a nonpartisan midterm election initiative, and hosting a science policy symposium in New York City this fall.

In just one week, NSPN has attracted over 100 subscribers, representing 50 different universities nationwide within the Western, Central, Eastern, and Southern Hubs. As we continue to grow, we aim to be a grassroots advocacy network for scientific expertise, critical thinking, and data-based decision-making that supports graduate student efforts to translate science and engineering from their laboratories to government.

In the current political climate, translating and amplifying the voices of scientific knowledge are more important than ever, but most academics remain isolated in their ivory tower. Scientific leadership’s reluctance to address internal cultural problems is not new, but recent threats to restrict the role of science in democracy has catalyzed change. This vacuum of support is being filled by local groups of scientists nationwide who are taking the task into their own hands, and NSPN is here to help.

Join us at scipolnetwork.org.

 

Holly Mayton (@hollindaze) is a Ph.D. candidate in Chemical and Environmental Engineering with a Designated Emphasis in Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside, and is currently serving as a National Chair of the National Science Policy Network. Locally, she is helping create the Science to Policy program at UC Riverside and has been involved in the UC Global Food Initiative, the California Agriculture and Food Enterprise, several California state advisory committees on environmental science and public outreach, and the California Council on Science and Technology. Holly is broadly passionate about connecting food and water science to policy and advocacy outcomes, from the local to the international level.

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.