Zooming into Science Policy: Rice Initiates New Chapter Virtually


Rice SciPol, one of NSPN's newest chapters at Rice University in Houston, TX, recently formed their group and held their first information session and happy hour - virtually! NSPN caught up with some of the founding members (Melody Tan, Robert Laroche, Adam Navara, Kathryn Brink, and Jordin Metz) to learn from their experience and find out about the chapter’s plans moving forward.


How did you gauge interest in starting a science policy group at Rice? What was the process of recruiting members to join your group?

Rice SciPol grew out of the Developing Civic Scientist Leaders (DCSL) program created by Bioengineering PhD Candidate Melody Tan and her policy mentor Dr. Kirstin Matthews at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Through this program, ten STEM graduate students met weekly throughout the Spring 2020 semester to learn about federal science policy, write policy op-eds, and develop congressional visit one-pagers advocating for basic research funding. The program was designed to culminate in a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with policymakers; however, this was postponed as a result of COVID-19. So, we decided to extend our weekly Zoom meetings throughout the summer to continue our science policy conversations, virtually connect with policy professionals, and work on increasing science policy engagement on campus.

In May, a collaborative Rice SciPol Slack workspace was created with channels dedicated to topics including science policy events and resources, congressional updates and actions, and plans for the new state level science policy fellowship and the upcoming Texas legislative session. We initially started growing the community by personally inviting friends and colleagues to join the workspace. Then, in June, the five of us decided to host Rice SciPol’s first information session and happy hour over Zoom.

Through avenues like Rice’s Graduate Student Association weekly newsletter and posts on social media, we were able to reach a broad audience of Rice students. By including an RSVP form in our event advertisements, we were able to get feedback on the level of science policy interest among Rice students as well as any specific questions individuals had coming into the event. We heard that registrants wanted to learn more about science policy roles and careers, our mission as an organization, whether we would focus on local or national level advocacy, and what professional development opportunities we could provide, among other questions. We were able to tailor our information session to address many of these questions and will be planning future events to discuss some of the other topics in more detail.


Did you face any unique challenges as a result of hosting your first event virtually?

For this initial event, we decided to provide an overview of science policy (including the classic ‘science for policy’ and ‘policy for science’ framework); science policy roles at the federal and state level as well as in non-governmental organizations, academia, and industry; why science policy is important; key policy stakeholders and political context; where to find information; and opportunities to get involved with Rice SciPol.

Hosting our event virtually presented a handful of unique challenges ranging from small inconveniences like communicating slide changes during a multi-person presentation and managing Zoom host privileges to more fundamental challenges like keeping participants engaged and communicative on a virtual medium. To address these challenges, we practiced our presentation (including transitions and breakout room assignments) in advance to work out technical issues, added a breakout room discussion in the middle of our presentation to allow participants to engage with each other, and thoughtfully considered details such as what breakout room sizes would best facilitate conversation.

Overall, the event went smoothly and we really enjoyed getting to meet other members of the Rice community interested in science policy. There were a total of 17 people at this event, many of whom expressed interest in attending future events and joined our Rice SciPol Slack afterwards.


What plans do you have in the works for future events or initiatives? Are there any Texas-specific or local policy issues that your chapter hopes to get involved with?

We envision for Rice SciPol to be a space to encourage networking and dialogue, share science policy resources and opportunities, foster collaborations, and more. While we are still in the early stages of development, we plan to set up regular meetings to consistently engage members on policy issues and initiatives of interest, as well as cultivate a sense of community.

While the five of us planned and led the first event, we hope that other members will take advantage of the opportunity to start initiatives corresponding to their personal policy interests. For instance, members Shubham Tripathi and Kathryn Brink were interested in writing about immigration policy, so Rice SciPol facilitated the formation of a working group of NSPN members with shared interests. This initiative has already resulted in the publication of one op-ed by Tripathi and Brink in the Houston Chronicle and another op-ed by UC Berkeley NSPN member Chris Jackson in The Daily Californian. Other discussions have been taking place around energy and environmental policy issues, which are especially important to Houston due to its unique position as an energy capital along the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast.

Additionally, Melody Tan is leading the creation of the Texas Science & Technology Policy Fellowship, which would place fellows with offices in the Texas Legislature to provide timely scientific information and support evidence-based policymaking. This program will be sponsored by Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in coordination with statewide groups and legislative offices. The pilot program is targeted to launch Spring 2021, during the 87th Texas Legislature, with Rice SciPol contributing to program development and providing support through bill tracking and other efforts.

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To find out more about Rice SciPol, follow them on Twitter (@RiceSciPol).

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