Exploring the Changing Landscape of the Scientific Enterprise at the 2016 Advocating for Science Symposium

Kate Stoll, Ben Corb, and Adam Fagen participate in a panel discussion at the Advocating for Science Symposium. Photo Credit: Future of Research.

“The first question people ask is, ‘What do you do?’ A good way to answer that as a scientist is to say, ‘I work for you.’”

-Ben Corb, Director of Public Affairs of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).

I had the privilege to attend the Advocating for Science Symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in September 2016, where I heard Mr. Corb’s and other science advocates’ message on how to use our diverse skills to move science forward. The mission of the two-day symposium was to:

  • Provide valuable advocacy resources to young investigators (grad students and postdocs)
  • Identify obstacles faced by the scientific community
  • Establish a plan of action to overcome those obstacles

The symposium consisted of workshops and interactive panels with policy leaders and communicators designed to help scientists distill their message for a lay audience and explore alternative career paths in science communication, policy, and media. The program also featured a keynote presentation by Dr. Rush Holt, former Congressman and CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Many of these presentations can be viewed online at the Advocating for Science Symposium Webcast.

I was very fortunate to receive the Advocating for Science Symposium Travel Award from the Future of Research (FoR) to attend the symposium. FoR started as a grassroots organization of postdocs in the Boston area with the goal of understanding the complexities of the scientific enterprise and creating a platform for early career scientists’ voices to be heard. FoR has been building momentum over the last three years, tracking and surveying Ph.D.’s, publishing current challenges in the academic research setting, including Shaping the Future of Research: a perspective from junior scientists, hosting science advocacy meetings nationally and internationally, and helping others organize their own FoR Symposium.

Daniel Curtis, MIT Graduate Student Council External Affairs Chair, and Tess Eidem chatting following the discussion panel. Photo Credit: Future of Research.

The Advocating for Science Symposium provided many valuable resources, including information on where a biology Ph.D. will take you, publications that describe the current challenges in the academic research setting, and opportunities to write to your local government representatives to Help Save Science. I was happy to hear about the growing number of policy and media programs that immerse scientists in government and communication, including the CU Boulder and AAAS Workshop Catalyzing Advocacy in Science & Engineering for graduate students and the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program, to name a few. I was also excited to learn that scientists can participate in the National Academy of Sciences Science & Entertainment Exchange to contribute to scientific accuracy in movies and TV programs (hopefully avoiding some of these hilarious disasters: thatsnothowyoupipette). I’ve always used PowerPoint to make my figures and presentations, but I can’t wait to try other visual communication tools and tutorials like those offered by Canva. I particularly enjoyed the “Making your own infographic” activity by Dr. Christine Oslowski, which walked participants through the steps of designing a catchy and visually appealing infographic using data from a survey we filled out earlier that day.

Dr. Oslowski describing the dos and don’ts of graphic design. Photo Credit: Future of Research.

To overcome the current obstacles faced by the scientific community, it is imperative that we nurture all of our skills and talents to turn these challenges into opportunities. After attending the symposium, I feel more prepared to develop, hone, and implement my diverse skill set as a science advocate; moreover, the conference brought together an amazing group of scientists who are motivated to do the same. Perhaps most importantly, this symposium confirmed that a scientist is much more than just a researcher; we are entrepreneurs, communicators, managers, mentors, artists, and effectors of change—all wrapped up in one lab coat.

For more information and additional resources, please see the links below:
Advocacy Groups and Publications
Academics for the Future of Science
Avoiding a lost generation of scientists. Taylor et al., eLife 2016
Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Alberts et al., PNAS 2014
Public engagement is key for the future of science research. Pham, npj Science of Learning 2016
iBioMagazine-The Future of US Biomedical Workforce
Fellowships and Programs
AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships
AAAS Career Development Center
ASBMB Science Policy Fellowship Program
Art and Communication Resources
10 Steps to a Perfect Science Talk
SciArt Center
Visual communication tips, tools, and tutorials: easel.ly | Inkscape | PIXLR
Advocating for Science 2016 Awardees
Alex Erwin
Holly Hamilton
Adriana Bankston
Sri Vedachalam
Elisa van der Plas
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Brian Aguado for his helpful comments and suggestions.

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