This Astrobite provides a broad overview of science policy: what it is and why it’s relevant to astronomers, who does it, and how to get involved. The rest of the posts in this guide explore more of these concepts in more detail. (Links in bold will take you to other Astrobites posts.)
Table of Contents
What exactly is science policy? Jump to section
Who does science policy? Jump to section
Why should astronomers care about science policy? Jump to section
How can I get involved in science policy? Jump to section
Astrobites coverage of past events related to science policy: Jump to section
Further resources: Jump to section
What exactly is science policy?
There are two main facets of science policy:
1) “Policy for science” is how governments affect science. This includes funding for governmental science institutions, as well as for universities and other organizations that do science. Other governmental policies can also influence the way science is done—policies on immigration, for instance, directly affect scientific collaborations.
2) “Science for policy” is how science affects governments—how scientific findings can lead to evidence-based governmental policy.
Who does science policy?
Science policy is made and enacted on different scales:
Several international organizations attempt to provide formal interfaces between scientists and policy makers. These include the Scientific Advisory Board of the UN Secretary-General and the World Science Forum, among others.
Science policy structures vary from country to country. Here are some posts about how this structure works in the United States — further posts on other countries are hopefully coming soon!
First: why does the US government fund basic scientific research, anyway? This Astrobite explains some of the historical context of science funding in the US.
- Executive branch: The White House is in charge of all budgeting of government agencies. These federal agencies then aim to implement the President’s directives. The agencies most relevant to astronomy include:
- The National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA): NASA doesn’t necessarily have a clear-cut strategic direction, but it’s one of the primary funders of astronomical research, particularly through telescope missions. (Upcoming large-scale missions include the James Webb Space Telescope and WFIRST.)
- The National Science Foundation (NSF): The NSF also funds astronomical research, primarily through peer-reviewed grants and funding programs (including the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program).
- The Department of Energy (DOE): The DOE’s Office of Science funds many high energy physics programs.
- Legislators: Congress must approve the federal budget and set the spending levels for federal agencies through the Appropriations Committees of the Senate and House of Representatives.
- Advisors: Various independent organizations advise the government about science and technology. These include:
- The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine: As the main agency of the National Academies, the National Research Council (NRC) undertakes Decadal Surveys to help chart the course of astronomy, solar and space science, and planetary science.
- Professional and scientific associations: The American Astronomical Society (AAS) maintains a Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) also has similar policy-related sub-organizations, like the Center for Science, Policy, and Society and the Office of Government Relations.
Even within a single country, science policy is often handled differently among various regions. For example, in the United States, the state of California has a California Center on Science and Technology that advises the state governor and legislature on science- or technology-related public policy issues. Other states don’t have any centralized science policy organization.
Many research institutions have a Governmental Relations Office (or an office with a similar name)—check out this interview with the head of MIT’s Washington Office. Other institutions may have political science or public policy departments, which often hold their own policy-related events.
Why should astronomers care about science policy?
Governments can affect science as a whole through the policies it enacts on issues such as funding and immigration. However, astronomy in particular is also affected by other issues, including science education, light pollution, and land use.
Furthermore, astronomers may have expertise in issues that affect governmental policy, such as planetary science (which can have implications about climate science) and solar system physics (for example, space weather affects industry and government alike).
How can I get involved in science policy?
Scientists can amplify their voices in government by convincing the public that science matters. This can be done through science outreach and communication—consider submitting a guest post to Astrobites, or applying to attend ComSciCon!
Many institutions also host days for members to visit legislators and advocate for federal support of science. In the US, you can check out the Congressional Visit Days held by the AAS and by the Science-Engineering-Technology Working Group. Some universities also encourage students to visit legislators and policymakers in federal or regional governments; for example, Caltech provides funding for students to attend a Science Policy Trip to Washington, D.C.
Some universities may also have student-led organizations that focus on science policy; consider starting or getting involved with groups at your institution!
It’s also important to remember that scientists’ voices as citizens matter! Contacting elected representatives and voting at all levels—remember, local elections are just as vital for effecting change as national elections—can make a real difference. (For US citizens, here are some handy links for contacting representatives and voting.) You can also volunteer time or money for election campaigns, or even offer to help elected representatives with specific scientific issues.
Finally, here’s an incomplete list of resources for those interested in careers in science policy! Please let us know if you have suggestions for things to add to this list:
- Astrobites interviews with people in science policy:
- David Goldston, head of MIT’s Washington Office
- More to come…
- Career opportunities in science policy
Astrobites coverage of past events related to science policy
- 2013 budget sequestration: how it affects space science, and an op-ed piece about its larger impacts on scientific research
- 2009-2012: Mars rover and NASA Open Government Plan
This list is incomplete! Please let us know if you have any suggestions for resources to add.