Donning crisp business suits rather than typical dusty field clothes, 13 doctoral students got a crash course in environmental policy recently when they visited the National Capital Region.
Graduate student fellows in Virginia Tech’s Interfaces of Global Change interdisciplinary graduate education program, housed in the Global Change Center, work on a variety of subjects, including ecology, ecotoxicology, disease ecology, invasive species, and climate change. But a key factor that draws students to this innovative program at Virginia Tech is its focus on the role of science in society, including the science-policy interface.
While in Washington, D.C., recently, they had the opportunity to observe congressional hearings on global change issues, and engage with members of the House of Representatives, governmental agencies, lobbyists, nonprofit groups, presidential scholars, and congressional staffers.
Patricia Woods of the Woods Institute, in partnership with the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech, led the workshop. Center Director Bill Hopkins, a professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Jeff Walters, a professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, accompanied the students on the trip.
Offered for the first time to Virginia Tech participants, the Woods Institute workshop supports the science policy mission of the center and its graduate program.
"Our capstone course focuses on societal aspects of Global Change, and provides our students an opportunity to explore the diversity of ways in which they, as scientists, can have a positive impact on society. Effective communication of science to decision makers is a powerful mechanism for influencing public policy on environmental issues," said Hopkins. "Our trip to D.C. was part of this capstone and was designed to demystify aspects of the policy decision-making process, and to highlight the diverse ways that scientists can interact with influential leaders in government and non-profit organizations. It was an eye-opening experience for our students."
On this trip, students observed a House of Representatives hearing of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee where the Environmental Protection Agency’s new ozone regulations were hotly debated.
"We had the chance to see, firsthand, one way in which policy makers obtain scientific information pertinent to policy decisions, and an example of scientists acting as witnesses before the committee," said Cathy Jachowski of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, a Ph.D. student in fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. "It was interesting and useful to see the way these scientists communicated scientific evidence to a non-scientific audience, and how differences in values among congressional committee members influenced the questions they asked witnesses."
Students also met with various representatives from environmental and scientific organizations, including the National Park Service, the Sierra Club, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"The trip opened my eyes to other career possibilities — specifically careers that could shape science policy," said Laura Schoenle of Buffalo, New York, a Ph.D. student in biological sciences in the College of Science. "In the past, I was under the impression that incorporating science into policy decisions was, at best, an uphill battle. After being on Capitol Hill and learning how this process works from lobbyists, staffers, and members of Congress, I feel hopeful about the possibility of good science being used to inform policy decisions."
"The students clearly saw the existing avenues for bringing the best available science into decision-making, avenues they could imagine themselves using," Walters said. "The students left DC much more optimistic about the role of science in determining policy than when they arrived. To me that was the most gratifying outcome of the experience."
Providing students with hands-on training in the policy arena and effective science communication are key missions of the Interfaces of Global Change graduate program. The program leverages Virginia Tech’s proximity to Washington, D.C., to develop experiential learning opportunities for students. With support from the Fralin Life Science Institute and the Virginia Tech Graduate School, the Global Change Center aims to expand these successful efforts in future years.