On April 30, COMPASS published a commentary in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. This post is part of a series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences we hope will expand the conversation. Read the summary post here, or track the conversation by searching for #reachingoutsci

Why I went to law school: Confessions of a scientist

Ryan KellyWhat does it mean to get outside of the ivory tower of science and into the “real” world? What does it mean to do science that speaks to the needs of policy and policymakers?  Perhaps most relevantly, is there really a science-policy gap, and if so, what precisely does that phrase mean? I didn’t set out to answer any one of these questions explicitly, but I think I’ve made progress towards getting some answers by changing the lens through which I think about scientific research.

You see, I finished a postdoc in evolutionary and ecological genetics, and then went to law school.  I did this for lots of reasons, but not least because I thought that developing significant depth in multiple disciplines would leave me better equipped to deal with what I guessed was the direction the world was heading: disciplinary boundaries dissolving, really interesting problems requiring intellectual cross-training and communication across imposing and longstanding disciplinary divides, and the like.  It seemed like the way to make science matter more was to link it to one of the dominant forces driving policy, namely the legal requirements governing the administrative agencies that influence decisions surrounding natural resources and environmental issues.

I didn’t know quite what job awaited me on the other side of a legal education. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t involve a suit and tie everyday, but I also suspected the number of my early mornings in the tidepools of California and Oregon would decrease.  I turned out to be right on both counts.

After law school, I took a fellowship position at the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford, where I could put the science parts of my brain to good use along with the legal education I’d just gotten.  Finding such a job was key: generally the jobs that are available to new lawyers are cog-in-a-machine type of jobs, doing document review, drafting briefs for other lawyers or—if you are lucky—for a judge (or really, for the judge’s clerks).  As a rule, these legal jobs don’t really care who you were before law school, or what experience you might bring to the table.  They need documents reviewed, and if you’re willing to review them until the wee hours of the morning, you’ll be paid well.  So finding a spot at a research and policy center built to make science more useful was a big step in the direction I’d hoped to go.

I immediately found myself meeting with agency staff, having to think about the real-world constraints on science and policy: economics, political agendas, history and personal conflict, and the mix of constituencies that invariably figure into environmental policy.  For example, the science side of me might reasonably think (and indeed, did think) the fact that humans’ CO2 emissions are making the oceans more acidic would be sufficiently compelling to merit some large-scale policy change.  But that side of me turned out to be wrong.

Because in the world of policy it’s not enough that a fact is scary or interesting or radically obvious; the data themselves don’t trigger action.  Data has to have a constituency.  Someone has to care enough about your conclusions that they’ll help change the status quo.  And change is hard for institutions, for markets, and for people.

In the case of ocean acidification, we worked to identify ways that individuals and local-scale governments could make a dent in the problem by using existing laws.  This work aligned with that of at least one constituency already being harmed by acidification: the shellfish industry in Oregon and Washington.  And subsequently Washington State’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Ocean Acidification brought lots of different voices to the table to work out the details on what the State could do to understand and mitigate harm that would come from a changing ocean.

So what’s the moral of the story?  It’s not as if scientists can avoid disciplinary constraints, tenure requirements, and the like.  But science takes place in the real world.  And if you want your data to matter, it is worth knowing how to get it into the right hands.  Sometimes that means finding a constituency.  Sometimes that means knowing whether your findings challenge or support the policy status quo, or perhaps using existing policies to generate research hypotheses.  Nearly always it means being able to explain your work and its importance to people who don’t have a PhD, or who aren’t scientists.  Scientists often think of themselves as not having a “message” to communicate, but rather as merely reporting what the data suggest.  But in a world crowded with messaging, this passive dispersal of information isn’t good enough. Whether you like it or not, you’ve got a message.  You did the work, reached a conclusion, and wrote it up for a reason.

Having had experience at the interface of science and policy over the last few years, I now re-read my abstracts (and whole papers) after I write them, asking myself who the text speaks to, and whether I’m getting across what I intend to.  It’s an extra filter through which work has to pass, but I hope that this process results in work that can get outside academia and land where it will do the most good.

Thinking of a research-heavy job as including a communications element might be tough, but I think it’s necessary. Don’t worry, though: at least you don’t have to go to law school to make sure your science matters.

Ryan Kelly is an assistant professor in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, within the College of the Environment at the University of Washington. His interests lie at the intersection of science and policy in the marine environment. He holds a PhD from Columbia University and a JD from UC Berkeley.

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