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An ecologist's guide to careers in science policy advising

Published on: Sep 25, 2019

From 2007 to 2009, I (LEP) was conducting my postdoctoral research in Florida's Apalachicola Bay, a Gulf Coast estuary that was being subjected to severe drought and upstream water withdrawals. My days consisted of field research on oysters within the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve and lab experiments in a hot and humid trailer. I manipulated temperature, salinity, and predators, trying to gain insight into oyster declines. Out on the water, I would watch the commercial harvesters pulling up smaller and smaller numbers of oysters. I wanted to get to know these people and understand what they were experiencing. I attended meetings of the fishermen and seafood industry representatives and became their science advisor. I translated and shared my findings and those of my colleagues, but more importantly, I listened. I listened to their insights, concerns, and challenges – economic hardships, regulatory constraints, and threats to culture and livelihoods. I also began to feel powerless. I could collect data to show that the drought was affecting oysters, but I couldn't influence upstream water management decisions, which were caught up in a long‐term, tristate water war. How could I better engage across the science–policy divide? I decided to apply for an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowship and swapped out my mud boots for a power suit. Little did I know that my first Fellowship assignment would be to develop a Regional Drought Early‐Warning System for the Apalachicola watershed, or that I would eventually end up working in the White House, developing science‐based policies to enhance the nation's climate resilience.

A science policy advisor provides scientific information and insights to support decision making and the development and implementation of public policies. “Decision makers” aren't just members of Congress or the President of the United States. They are companies enhancing the sustainability of their practices, non‐governmental organizations (NGOs) identifying priority conservation areas, local governments improving stormwater management, federal or state agencies managing landscapes, and individual consumers increasing home energy efficiency. These people and organizations are looking to the scientific community for leadership and guidance.

To read the rest of this article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, please click here.