From The Science Student Council

Advocating for science: A role for graduate students

Why science advocacy matters for graduate students and what you can do to get involved.

By Michael Dunbar

For better or worse, government bodies play a crucial role in scientific progress. Absent appropriate federal funding, for example, the best study ever conceived may never make it past the edges of the proposal page.  As graduate students, most of us are acutely aware of the need for adequate funding: our lavish lifestyles are often wholly dependent upon government-funded grants and fellowships. Yet the fact that such funding exists at all—that we are able to pursue our scientific interests and advance the field—is often taken for granted.

In today’s uncertain economic and political climate, the value of psychological research is frequently called into question.  While it may seem clear to us, the widespread and long-term benefits of psychological research may not be evident to government officials as they decide which policies to implement and where to allot scarce resources. Government advocacy plays a substantial and often overlooked role in bridging the gap between scientists and politicians. The American Psychological Association (APA) and other professional societies make considerable efforts to advocate on behalf of scientists. By emphasizing the importance of psychological research in better understanding and addressing myriad problems in the real world, outreach to government officials helps to ensure that we are able to pursue our research interests. As graduate students, we owe a great deal of gratitude to those who fight on our behalf. Advocacy ensures that we are able to (slowly but surely) build our careers. But here’s the best part: it’s not just for professional lobbyists!

The ability to advocate for the importance of one’s own research is a valuable skill for any scientist. It helps us to view our research from a different perspective, and to appreciate the significance of our work in the context of broader societal issues.  Advocacy also helps to refine the ability to succinctly communicate our program of research to individuals outside of the scientific community. Thus, in addition to benefiting psychological science at large, graduate students at the beginning of their careers stand to benefit immensely through engaging in advocacy work.

At our meeting this past March, members of APA’s Science Student Council (SSC) participated in advocacy training with APA’s Science Government Relations Office (GRO) staff. We subsequently went to Capitol Hill to discuss the importance of maintaining NIH funding with Congressional staff, using our own research to illustrate how psychological science can offer profound contributions to critical health issues in our country. For example, my research examines the effects of environmental context (e.g., other people smoking, smoking restrictions) on smoking behavior. I discussed the significant implications that improved understanding of factors that both facilitate and impede smoking may have for reducing chronic health problems and associated health care costs in the future.  Meeting with Congressional staff members was a fantastic exercise in thinking about the ‘big picture’ perspective of my own research and how to best present it in a way that clearly answers the ‘big question’: why should I (we) care?

Such experiences have propelled science advocacy to a permanent position in the SSC mission statement. Students can now find information about becoming involved with advocacy through the SSC’s web page. Past SSC articles (e.g., “The Graduate Student Advocacy Tool Kit”) provide detailed information about the tools you need to get involved in science advocacy as a student. Additional information on how to take action can also be found online at the Science Directorate’s GRO website. A solid first step to getting involved is becoming aware of the broader policy climate and the current issues that may be especially relevant to psychological research.  Subscribing to APA’s Science Policy Insider News (SPIN) is also a great way to stay up-to-date with periodic overviews of critical science policy issues.

Advocacy is beneficial for every scientist, but it is crucial to maintaining a climate in which early career researchers can flourish. Today’s graduate students strive to advance our fields, contribute new and exciting ideas to the scientific community, and improve the world. As we push forward, it is both our privilege and our responsibility to fight for the ability to do so. 

Michael Dunbar is the health psychology representative on the APA Science Student Council. He is currently a doctoral student in clinical and health psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. His interests include the relationship between craving and drug use and environmental influences on smoking behavior and health decision-making.