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My mom organized a campaign to free them. She coordinated telegrams from all 50 US states urging Soviet President Gorbachev to release the family, wrote to President Reagan, and met with our congressperson. She mobilized young people to mail postcards and she publicized the case in the media.  

Three months later, the Uspensky family was freed.  

It’s impossible to know what effect, if any, my mom’s efforts had on the outcome, but the lesson for me was clear: one person can have an impact, make a difference, change the world.  

Hope, knowledge, and improving people’s lives is an apt description for the work of scientists and engineers that can be applied beyond science: it is also the aspiration of all those shaping policy for the betterment of our world.  

SCIENTISTS ARE UNIQUELY QUALIFIED CHANGE MAKERS

Bringing about change can be a long, laborious process with advances and setbacks along the way. Nevertheless, the characteristics of the most effective policy makers, advocates, and communicators are shared by scientists. Scientists just need to learn to re-calibrate these qualities in a realm that may be unfamiliar.  

Patience. Efforts to overturn outdated policies or produce results from communication techniques can be incremental and painstakingly slow. After 9/11, I spearheaded passage of the first ever law to require screening of all the billions of pounds of air cargo carried on passenger airlines. A five year endeavor, we had to adjust to frequent twists and turns throughout the process before ultimately succeeding in getting our bill signed into law.  

Curiosity. To uncover opportunities for changing faulty laws or regulations and communicating effectively in highly charged political environments, asking “why?” needs to shape messaging - “Why are things done this way?” “Why aren’t you concerned about risks associated with the current policy?” “Why does that policy maker support changing the status quo?”  

Tenacity. The policymaking process is designed to be inefficient. It enables a broad spectrum of stakeholders to express opinions and shape formative policies as they move through a labyrinthian process. Vigilance (to detect attempts to undermine your efforts) and endurance (to stay focused on the goal despite the circuitous policymaking route) are valuable assets.  

Research. “Know your audience” is a typical directive for those wanting to communicate science effectively. But what specifically should you know about your audience? The answers are non-obvious and multifaceted. Including factors such as, How do you assess an audience’s knowledge of a topic to tailor your remarks accordingly?  

ASK WHAT'S WRONG?

Effective communication and public policy are my tools for “changing what’s wrong”. During a 20–year Capitol Hill career that included Chief-of-Staff in the Senate and House of Representatives, I targeted policies that were, from our perspective, harmful, counter-productive, or just plain wrong. It was my responsibility to help derail those policies, while also developing new legislation and policy initiatives to improve the lives of all Americans. Policy has been my path for making a positive impact on the world; for others, it’s science. Both can feel more like a calling than a career, more like a way of life, not just a livelihood.  

National Medal of Science Recipient, Lucy Shapiro, PhD, is a developmental biologist who personifies the philosophy in science of doing something to deliver widespread public benefits. Shapiro fights emerging infectious diseases and infectious disease resistance that threaten human health. In her lab, she’s discovered new ways to overcome resistance that is systematically rendering antibiotics useless. Working with her husband, Harley McAdams, PhD, a physicist and professor of developmental biology, and their joint research team, she can quickly pinpoint genes that almost any microbial species needs for survival. This enables the targeting of the functions these genes control and the creation of new antibiotics “resistant to resistance”. Shapiro, McAdams and their team have several such antibiotics in clinical trials.  

In her 2015 commencement address at Stanford Medical School, Shapiro urged graduates to ask, “How can I change what’s wrong?”  

At Bayer Strategic Consulting, I’m fortunate to work with inspiring scientists—physicists, neuroscientists, archeologists, and others—dedicated everyday to asking, and answering, that question.  

A version of this piece was published in the National Postdoctoral Association's PostDOCket online newsletter