Balancing Act: Finding a Place for Policy Engagement

By Erica Goldman and COMPASS

May 5, 2014


Minute Read


By Erica Goldman
Published May 5, 2014
Title: Balancing Act: Finding A Place For Policy Engagement
Tags: credibility, culture, government, mentors, public, trust, Erica Goldman

Academics are hearing the message loud and clear that society needs what they have to offer. In Nicholas Kristof’s recent provocative column, “Professors, We Need You!,” he admonishes professors not to “cloister yourselves like medieval monks,” but at the same time, acknowledges the real challenges posed by “a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.”

At COMPASS we often hear a sincere desire from scientists to make their work relevant in societal dialogues. But we also hear that the nature of many academic jobs often makes that engagement an add-on, rather than an integral part of their workload and process for review and promotion. As Chad wrote in his last post, scientists can learn how to make the most of the time they spend engaging, honing their skills to maximize the value they can bring to policy dialogues once they’ve begun. But the problem remains, how do you balance expectations of academic culture with the time it takes to make a valuable contribution in a policy space?

Forging a path toward engaged scholarship requires persistence and creativity. And there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. At fundamental level, the secret to success revolves around “knowing your ecosystem,” according to Martin Doyle, a 2008 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow at Duke University, who shared his ideas with the fellows participating in the recent Leopold Advanced Policy Training.

Martin has been quite successful in policy engagement. As a river scientist, he has built a career on both basic science – topics ranging from hydrology to sediment transport to food web dynamics – to the applied context for river science – issues such as dam removal and the movement of radioactive sediments. He’s become a trusted network node for the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, as well as a resource for policymakers at the state and local level.

To engage effectively, he says, you must understand the policy ecosystem you’re stepping into, as Chad described in his earlier post. But also understand your institutional ecosystem; learn where you are likely to find support for engaging and where you have to negotiate tradeoffs.

Finding ways to integrate policy engagement with other academic activities is one way to balance professional roles.
(CC BY-NC- SA by Hans Splinter on Flickr)

Use Policy Engagement to Advance Scholarship

First, Martin says, develop a nose for where your science might really make a difference in policy. A guiding filter Martin uses for his work is, “a policy question exists because the science does not.” By identifying places where science lags behind policy need, you can find ways to align scholarship and engagement. In response to policy conversations related to fish passage and river restoration, Martin forged new territory around the basic science underlying issues such as dam removal and translocation of radioactive sediment. He estimated that in some cases he was publishing policy-relevant science in the peer-reviewed literature up to five years ahead of others in his field.

Martin attributes much of his insight to his longtime career mentor Will Graf, also a river scientist, now emeritus faculty at the University of South Carolina. Will built a career with a dual focus on scholarship and policy engagement “way before it was cool,” says Martin. Will has engaged in dozens of policy advisory committees and processes over more than 30 years, including two organized by COMPASS in 2012-2013.

One of the key lessons Will taught Martin about creating a portfolio of policy engagement within a traditional academic environment is that you still need to “publish like crazy.” But,  not all of those publications need to place in top-tier journals, as long as some do.  In fact, the journals that tend to publish policy relevant science tend not be those journals anyway. This was especially true when Will was starting out.  While white papers are the currency of communication within the policy world, they are not meaningful within academia.  So making sure that your policy-engaged science is published in the peer-reviewed literature is essential for maintaining a competitive edge within the institutional ecosystem.

Threading the needle between scholarship and engagement also requires an explicit consideration of tradeoffs at play. No scientist can keep growing his/her plate exponentially. Martin acknowledges that he can’t do as much basic research while doing policy-relevant research. He asks for and receives more flexibility in teaching responsibilities, largely because his policy work has proved a benefit to his university, his science, his students, and to the policy community. He has found it helpful to cultivate champions for his work more broadly within the institution  (e.g. deans or other senior administrators), in addition to working to build support from his department heads.

Align Engagement with Teaching and Mentoring

Another way to help build institutional support for policy engagement is to use teaching and mentoring as two-way street. Expose your students to practical experience engaging and help them develop professional skills aligned with your research and engagement interests. Chad wrote last week about how Karen Lips has mobilized a cadre of graduate students to help crunch the data that will generate science to answer questions asked by a policymaker.

Heather Leslie, a professor of marine conservation science at Brown University, has also taken a very holistic approach to integrating teaching and mentoring with policy engagement. Heather founded the Voss Environmental Fellows Program, which enables undergraduates to conduct policy-relevant research in collaboration with Brown faculty and external partners from government and non-governmental organizations. She also uses courses as vehicles to initiate dialogue with external partners as she develops a syllabus for an upcoming course. “It provides a great starting point for conversation about outstanding science needs or other possible collaborations,” she says.

One-on-one mentoring can be rewarding for students and faculty alike. Heather has enabled her students to observe and, in some cases, participate in local and regional environmental decision processes. Her students have testified at a Providence, R.I. hearing before members of the Ocean Policy Task Force during the drafting of the first ever US Ocean Policy; they’ve attended state and regional meetings following the policy creation, where the states and partners wrestled with how to implement the tenets of ecosystem-based management in New England in particular; and they wrote policy briefs and op-eds on offshore wind power, commercial fishing, coastal restoration and climate change in order to share cutting-edge science.

Heather’s integration of teaching and engagement bring Nicholas Kristof’s admonishment full circle, demonstrating that academics, if given the right space and support, can be vital participants in social dialogues. “When students join me in activities like these,” Heather says, “we all gain a richer understanding of how science fits into environmental decision-making and we also demonstrate to our colleagues beyond the ivory tower how interested and capable university students and faculty can be as participants in such processes.

This post was transferred from its original location at to, August 2017.

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