Why do I rely on complex written descriptions (i.e., in a scholarly article) to learn how to perform new and difficult experiments, while I would instead watch Youtube videos to learn how to do non-research things in my life, such as how to attach a button to my shirt or fix my bike? This question came to me as I failed, yet again, to replicate a procedure from a recent paper published in a fancy journal. I was a PhD candidate in Australia and this simple question sparked countless conversations with my colleagues, which eventually led to us using GoPro cameras in our lab, as I have discussed in editorials in Chemistry of Materials and Angewandte Chemie. This quest to improve my research process started to infect all of my work, including attempts to improve bio-nano research, how to best bridge our field with cancer nanomedicine, and the development of a ‘minimum information standard’ for the field.
My interest in attempting to improve the research process soon grew into an interest towards the broader topic of improving research culture. After I completed my PhD in Melbourne and moved to Imperial College London, my appetite for this grew even further and I became deeply involved in a range of activities focused around ‘changing research culture’. My day-job was as a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at Imperial, but at nights and weekends I undertook an increasing number of side activities, and I became vice-chair of the Policy Working Group for the Marie Curie Alumni Association shortly into my fellowship . Towards the end of my fellowship, I decided to switch from researcher during the day, to instead pursue advocacy full time with some research added on the side for fun. I’m not in the lab myself anymore, but I frequently talk to researcher friends about new findings and potential research directions.
With that short introduction, which I hope provides a bit of context to my journey, the question I most often receive is ‘How can I explore if the transition from researcher to advocacy and policy is right for me?’. Let me share the three tips I usually give.
Follow the discussion
Step one is to follow the discussion. Both Nature and Science have front matter (before the research articles in the table of contents) which contains editorials, opinion and commentary pieces, and science journalism. These are great for getting a good overview of what is happening in science policy and science news right now. More specialised media, read extensively by science policy professionals, include ScienceBusiness and Research Professional. In addition, social media can be a great resource. My tip here is to find a few good people to follow, and then check who they follow to try to define a diverse set of people to track. Ideally, you need to understand the ‘broader discussion’ and not just your own ‘bubble’. When you find people who have different opinions to yourself, but are well-informed, you must treasure them!
Step two is to start contributing to the discussion. Social media, blog posts and submitting pieces to online magazines and newspapers, especially those which may exist in your local environment (e.g., your university or nearby) are good places to start. Don’t be afraid to share your opinion, but of course do it cordially and in a manner you would be comfortable to adopt while on stage in front of an audience. Find the key topics you are really passionate about: be it Open Science, diversity, equity and inclusion in science, using Gopro Cameras or whatever you want! You are then well-positioned to help move these issues forward.
Finally, find like minded people to engage with. Advocacy is much more fun, and impactful, when working together. I have worked with great people in organisations such as the Marie Curie Alumni Association, Eurodoc and Young Academy of Europe. But my suggestion here is that you first start locally. For students, this can be, for example, the student union at your own university, or advocacy bodies in your region or country. Local advocacy is often the most fun as you can have immediate effect and feedback from the community around you. These groups often have lower barriers for entry, as many local advocacy organisations need all the help they can find, so you can get started earlier.
If you have read this far then you probably have at least a passing interest in science policy and advocacy. Let me then say: we need you! Too few scientists get involved in advocacy, instead thinking this domain is reserved for the elusive ‘policymaker’. But all good policies are made with the involvement and engagement of the related community, and in these times science is deeply involved in many of the most important topics our society is facing. You don’t have to switch to advocacy full time (although some of you may decide to do that after trying it for a while), but I am hoping many of you will choose to follow the discussion, contribute to it, and get involved!