Laurie Zabala is a Science Communications Intern at Research!America and a Spring 2022 graduate of Georgetown University’s M.S. Integrative Neuroscience program. While at Georgetown, she conducted research on Alzheimer’s Disease and supplemented her biomedical degree with science policy electives and activities.
How did your interest in science policy develop?
By happy accident! Ever since elementary school, I’ve had a foot in two worlds – the humanities and the sciences. After I earned a master’s degree in international relations, I wanted to pursue a neuroscience degree. My search for a neuroscience master’s program helped me discover science policy. I soon realized science policy was the perfect nexus between the two worlds.
Why do you believe science policy is important?
The most effective policies are evidence-based, but evidence is only one of the many inputs that make up the complex process of policymaking. Science policy grounds policymaking in evidence and ensures scientists are properly supported to innovate and make discoveries.
Most science policy groups are formed by students outside of the classroom/lab, but you had a different experience. Can you share the origins of The Vannevar Group?
On the first day of “Shaping National Science Policy,” the professor, Dr. Taylor Winkleman, assigned us (13 Georgetown University biomedical graduate students) to build a science policy group from scratch.
None of us had experience building an organization or advocating on Capitol Hill. The first month and a half was the hardest, but we found our footing after defining who we were as an organization and identifying an agenda, and The Vannevar Group (TVG) was formed.
Each student had two key responsibilities: develop a policy proposal and support TVG operations. I was part of a team which developed a policy proposal called Science Policy for Undergraduate Development (SPUD), which adds science policy workshops to an existing National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for undergraduates. On the operations side, my team oversaw branding and graphics.
What were some of the challenges and lessons learned from starting a science policy and advocacy group?
The biggest challenge was defining our mission and policy agenda. On our first pass, we proposed tackling massive, complex policy issues – like healthcare reform – and our Board of Directors wisely advised us to narrow our focus. Our revised mission was approved: “to catalyze innovative, inclusive, science-driven policy through concrete, interdisciplinary research and data analytics.”
It was incredibly fulfilling to apply the science policy theories we learned in our coursework to address present policy challenges. In the same way you learn more about science through conducting experiments than by just reading, starting TVG gave us hands-on, real-world experience in science policy. A major takeaway: No policy issue is “easy,” but choosing a narrow, specific issue ensures a more manageable and actionable solution.
Additionally, it was empowering to take full ownership of the process of establishing an organization. I now know, “Yes, I can do this.”
What are you most proud of having accomplished through TVG?
I’m most proud of formulating a policy proposal, Science Policy for Undergraduate Development (SPUD), and advocating for it on Capitol Hill. This proposal was shaped by my personal experience of stumbling across science policy by accident, which unfortunately is a common story for people in this field. SPUD is meant to be a thoughtful introduction to science policy for undergraduate students.
My TVG policy team met with congressional staff – particularly those in the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology – to ask them to sponsor SPUD as an amendment to the NSF for the Future Act. Many of the congressional offices we met with were enthusiastic about SPUD, which led to connecting us with staff at the National Science Foundation.
Science policy shouldn’t end with the close of a semester, and I have continued to advocate for SPUD. With support from my colleagues at Research!America, I recently had a meeting with NSF staff, and the outcome was very positive. The NSF staff expressed interest in promoting SPUD as part of their grant program.
What are the plans for TVG?
The plan is to keep The Vannever Group connected to the “Shaping National Science Policy” course with future graduate students expanding upon the foundation we built. Dr. Winkleman plans to expand the course to two semesters to create continuity over the academic year. There are also plans to work to establish TVG chapters at other schools.
What advice do you have for others who want to start their own science policy or advocacy group?
If you are passionate about something, just do it! It’s scary when you have no experience, but know you are capable of learning along the way. I had never started an organization, developed a policy, nor advocated on Capitol Hill, and I knew little about branding and graphics. But I was passionate and eager to learn. Those two ingredients are key to success.
Secondly, teamwork is so important! You can’t do policy work alone. There is too much to be done and too much information to parse through. Assemble a team of people with passion who are eager and willing to contribute to achieve a common goal.
Interested in starting your own science policy group? Applications for the 2022-2023 Civic Engagement Microgrant Program will open until Friday, September 9, 2021. Microgrants of up to $4,000 will be awarded to STEM graduate student and postdoc-led groups to design and execute projects that create dialogue with public officials, local community leaders, and the public around issues of common concern. Find more information and apply here.