A version of this post appeared on November 17, 2020 in the Genetic Society of America's 'Genes to Genomes' blog. The original post can be viewed here. The post is reprinted here with permission.
Being a scientist can be incredibly rewarding. As a PhD student who studies the genetics and evolution of the malaria parasite, I am motivated to go to the lab every day because I believe the research I do will contribute in some way to our future ability to address a serious infectious disease that impacts millions of people around the world. But, if you are like me, you might also have a desire to do work that has a more direct and immediate impact.
The good news is there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in your own local government or community. For example, state, county, and city governments can often benefit from the perspective of someone with scientific expertise when dealing with issues such as technology, public health, education, or environmental concerns. And while we often focus more on Washington, DC, policy made at the local level can greatly impact our day-to-day lives.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to know how to make the first step towards getting involved in local policy. This is exactly why the organization Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) was created. ESAL is a volunteer-run nonprofit founded by physicist Arti Garg, with the goal of increasing local civic engagement by people with STEM backgrounds. Through ESAL’s Local Engagement Playbook, you can find step-by-step guides for everything, from how to learn about local policies to how to run for office. ESAL’s website also has a crowd-sourced database of local organizations and programs, as well as resources for engineers and scientists who want to contribute to the COVID-19 response.
In addition to these resources, ESAL also aims to highlight topics at the intersection of science and local policy through its blog, as well as through virtual events. For example, as a volunteer with the Events Team, I had the opportunity to organize a panel discussion titled “Science, Technology and the Vote.” The panel featured experts from a variety of STEM fields who spoke about many relevant topics—cybersecurity, assistive voting technology, statistical methods for election auditing, the mathematical models behind redistricting, and more. This was a perfect example of how people with STEM backgrounds can contribute to an important issue at the local level—in this case, helping to preserve the fairness and integrity of the elections, which is the very foundation of democracy.
Whatever issue you care about, there are undoubtedly ways that you can make a difference in your own local community. Even if you don’t have specific expertise in politics, I guarantee that you have technical, analytical, and critical thinking skills that are incredibly valuable in the policy world. For example, in my own policy work, I found that even though I only consider myself to have modest data analysis skills, I was (much to my amusement) deemed a computer wizard by my non-scientist counterparts.
So, I encourage you to take the first step, and remember that you are not taking it alone. Check out ESAL to find resources and to learn about and connect with other scientists and engineers who are with you on this journey.