“Decisions are made by those who show up” – Origin Unknown
This quote captures my experience as a policy analyst and adviser in Congress and in the White House. Policymakers hear more information than any person and their staff can process. As a result, decisions often reflect the positions of the loudest advocates as much as those of the “best-informed” ones. But experience has taught me that scientists can have substantive policy impact by engaging in the policy process. And, perhaps even more than in Washington, we can make a difference closer to home.
This is why I founded Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL). ESAL aims to increase local engagement by people with backgrounds in STEM. My journey to this end began soon after I left Washington and resumed technical work. I wanted to engage with government again, so I joined a municipal task force aimed at mitigating urban blight, including litter abatement, in my city of Hayward, Calif. This gave me a window into the role local government plays in issues I care about, such as preserving the ecosystems of our waterways. Even as an astrophysicist, skills from my scientific training allow me to understand and articulate how our efforts impact our local ecology. At the same time, just as in Washington, I can see how difficult it is to develop sound, evidence-based policy that balances competing interests.
Since joining the task force, I have gained a better understanding of the connection between street litter and the health of the San Francisco Bay. Litter that remains on the street ends up in storm drains that flow to the Bay, polluting its ecosystem. My city’s efforts to collect street litter and to install trash capture devices in our stormwater systems are critical to meeting the Environmental Protection Agency’s “0% trash by 2022” goal for the San Francisco Bay.
Even at the municipal level, developing policy is a delicate balancing act. In 2008, citing public health concerns, Hayward enacted an ordinance banning smoking in most public spaces. To reinforce the ban, the city got rid of public receptacles for cigarette disposal. So when people smoke in public, which many inevitably do, they often toss their cigarette butts on the ground, leaving an environmental toxin to flow to the Bay. This tension between a measure aimed at improving public health and its actual environmental consequences is an example of the trade-offs local government officials consider every day. By engaging with our local policymakers, we can help evaluate the implications of specific policy choices.
Efforts to reduce plastic straw usage similarly demonstrate the complexity of local policymaking. According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic straws are one of the most common items in beach litter. Over time, plastic trash in waterways breaks down into microplastics that leach into marine ecosystems. Despite open questions about the exact impact of microplastics, there is general consensus that we should limit the amount of plastic trash in waterways. Many California cities as well as the California state legislature are considering plastic straw legislation, and the task force I serve on has encouraged our city’s efforts. But a ban on plastic straws can adversely affect small businesses and punishments may disproportionately affect the most vulnerable workers, so we also advised that the policy should also minimize such economic hardship and avoid draconian punishments for foodservice workers. Even when there is strong evidence to back a particular outcome and general agreement on the need to pursue it, it is not always easy to craft policies that achieve their goals with minimal negative impact.
These are just a few examples of the multi-faceted, science-related policy issues I’ve encountered in a few short years on a task force. Municipal, county, and state governments regularly deal with many more…without the staff-sizes available to federal policymakers. My service has shown me the value of a scientific perspective in local policy discussions, even on issues outside of my area of expertise. (I find that astrophysics issues rarely arise at any level of government.) As scientists we can understand technical findings, translate them for broader consumption, and raise concerns when the evidence presented seems incomplete or misapplied. The more actively we engage in the conversation and understand competing interests, the more likely it is that we can shape policies that will garner broad support.
I was motivated to start ESAL when I realized that local government and communities could benefit from more engagement by people with STEM training. I found few places for scientists to learn how to engage locally. ESAL seeks to address this gap. Last year, ESAL administered a Civic Engagement Survey of engineers and scientists. Despite their interest in local engagement, many respondents said they did not know how to get started. So, through its blog, ESAL identifies and features engineers and scientists who are contributing to their community. Their stories provide concrete examples of ways you can make a difference. The ESAL Local Engagement Checklist is a convenient guide listing ideas to get you started. And in the coming months, ESAL will introduce issue-based content and launch a repository of local engagement information. ESAL offers a monthly newsletter (sign up) with updates on its efforts.
Common advice shared by scientists featured on ESAL’s blog is that “showing up is 90% of it”. Through service to my city, I have learned a great deal about the competing interests that shape government response to many issues. I have also gained insight into how to more effectively advocate for policies that matter to me. So, I invite you all to attend a city council meeting, join your state representative at a local event, or even apply to serve on a local advisory board. You will be surprised how much of a difference you can make, just by being in the room.