Shaping State Policy with Science

By: Josh Lawler, Ph.D. Professor of Environmental and Forest Sciences and Co-Director, Center for Creative Conservation, University of Washington
September 28, 2017
Est. Reading Time: 5 minutes
Our "Stories from the field" series shares the experiences of engineers and scientists who are making a difference in their communities.
Share this with your network

In November 2016, I got a call from the state of Washington’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC), a legislative office that provides nonpartisan analysis, which led to a rare chance to do research that directly informed state policy. While it was quite a challenge, especially on an accelerated timeframe, it was a rewarding experience and one that provided a number of lessons about how academic researchers can help to inform policy. I recount that experience and some of those lessons here in hope that this one case study might be useful for others interested in doing policy-relevant research.

Legislators had asked JLARC to weigh the relative benefits to fish and wildlife of land-use regulations and state acquisitions of land. The underlying question was whether or not the state needed to keep purchasing land to protect habitat when there were already so many regulations that prevent development or timber harvest on parts of the landscape. The committee staff had found the world expert on this topic through their internet research, but he was unavailable, and so he referred them to me, a local.

I met with some of the JLARC staff and walked them through a number of potential analyses they could do to answer the question. I figured they would go off to do these analyses and that would be the last I would hear from them. However, a couple weeks later, they called me back to ask if my lab could do some of the analyses I had outlined. We would have roughly six months. This is where the more conservative academic voice on my right shoulder said, “No way, don’t do it.” Six months was an incredibly short timeline to answer the question in a credible way. But the more practical, get-out-of-the-ivory-tower-and-answer-real-world-questions voice over my left shoulder said, “Do it.”

I decided to go for it.

We dug right in, collecting datasets from the JLARC team and elsewhere. I pulled four members of my lab into the project and engaged a group of students from across campus. The pace was fast and furious with constant back and forth with the JLARC staff. We turned in our report in early August 2017. We still have several meetings with the JLARC staff and state agency staff, so the full impact of our study is yet to be determined. However, I can relate some of the lessons about doing research that is useful for decision makers.

  • Be creative in using university resources. If you want to engage in this kind of work, you have to be flexible enough to get the work done on much faster timelines than the traditional academic project. I happened to have two postdocs and two graduate students in my lab who could shift their workload and jump on the project for a number of months. You may also want to draw on other resources that are unique to a university setting. For example, I offered a graduate seminar in which the students contributed to the project by reviewing the land-use regulations and mapping their spatial footprints.
  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. As scientists, we strive to do the best studies we can—to design the best experiment to answer a question. However, when working with a short timeline and/or a limited budget, one has to make important choices. You’ll find yourself asking “how much is enough?” and “What can be done in the time I have to credibly answer the question before me?” I would have loved to run spatially explicit population models to address the legislature’s question, but given time constraints, that wasn’t a possibility.
  • Learn to navigate your institution’s bureaucracy. University rules and regulations aren’t generally built for the kind of speed that this type of project requires. For example, it can take six months just to process a grant and create a budget to pay students and postdocs. This means you will likely have to spend a significant amount of time with your office of sponsored programs to make it happen. Even then, you will need to be patient, creative, and find ways to color outside the lines a bit.
  • Don’t talk like a scientist. To serve its purpose well, your findings will need to be communicated in a format that is highly accessible to a diverse audience. Although many staffers are well read and some may even have scientific training, you can’t count on your audience knowing the technical language found in your scientific papers. For example, in the current study, we found that terms like “counterfactual analysis,” and “edge effects,” needed to be well defined or avoided.
  • Consider what’s in it for you. If you hope to engage in this kind of work often, you will need to make sure that your efforts are recognized at your university. This is particularly true if you do not yet have tenure. Although I don’t necessarily recommend waiting until after tenure to take on such projects if this is the kind of work you want to do, you will need to figure out a way to make sure that your work is valued in the tenure-review process. One way to do that is to make sure that the work you do is publishable. This can be a significant challenge for some types of questions and for extremely short timelines. You may also need to work with colleagues to raise awareness of the need for different reward structures in department or university policies.

I will admit that this project was grueling, and we spent significantly more time on it than we had envisioned. But, we produced some important results, learned a lot along the way, and are all pleased to know that all of that hard work is paying off in real-world applicability.

If I had the choice to make over again, I would still listen to that voice on my left shoulder. I might put more effort into upfront planning and time management, but I would definitely do it again. Doing research with a high probability of directly affecting policy is an all-too rare opportunity for academics and is incredibly rewarding. It is my hope that if we, as a community, do more of it, we’ll see more evidence of science in the solutions to today’s challenging problems.Josh Lawler is a Denman Endowed Professor in Sustainable Resource Sciences and Co-Director of the Center for Creative Conservation at the University of Washington. As an ecologist, he is driven by applied conservation questions and their real-world applications. In particular, he is interested in how climate change can drive shifts in plant and animal distributions and the impacts those shifts have at both the species and the ecosystem level. He uses a combination of field experiments and statistical and simulation modeling techniques, and he works with collaborators to design tools for conservation planners. He also studies how human health, climate, and environment are connected.

Do you have a story to tell about your own local engagement or of someone you know? Please submit your idea here , and we will help you develop and share your story for our series.

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 09/28/17
Updated: 09/14/22
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram