Communicating for Policy: NSPN and Cincinnati Host Policy Memo Workshop

Aug 19, 2020

Twenty-three topical policy issues have been given room to shine, thanks to participants in NSPN’s Science Policy Memo Workshop.

The workshop, held virtually on August 15 and 16, 2020, brought together 27 teams consisting of 87 early-career scientists and engineers from across the country. Together, the teams spent a weekend writing policy memos on topics ranging from research funding to drug policy.

NSPN partnered with the Science Policy Group at the University of Cincinnati to host the event, NSPN’s first multi-day webinar. “At NSPN's 2019 conference I was introduced to memo writing and have been looking for training opportunities to improve these skills,” said Paige Greenwood, co-founder of the University of Cincinnati’s Science Policy Group. “After reading the JSPG paper called Training in Policy Memoranda for Early Career Scientists, I wondered if this workshop could be offered virtually for more NSPN members to learn. The success of the virtual workshop is more than I could have ever hoped for and I am elated that so many people were able to participate.”

The event began on Saturday morning, August 15, with two lectures to provide context for attendees to frame their work. The first lecture, given by Cristin Dorgelo, covered a broad overview of science policy writing and how policy recommendations are translated into real change. The second lecture, given by Adriana Bankston, took a deeper dive into the purpose and structure of a typical policy memo.

“The lectures were filled with tips and tricks on how to write a policy memo, but also how to be an effective communicator in general and how to get your science across to different audiences without losing what makes it great or important,” said Stephanie Werner, a PhD Candidate in Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Cristin provided basically a crash course in Executive Branch 101, which made me feel like if I get there one day, I’d know what to do to craft my Big Idea into a memo.”

After the initial lectures, attendees split into breakout rooms, where they put their new knowledge into practice. All teams were assigned the same prompt: Propose a secure voting process for the 2020 U.S. election in the midst of COVID-19. Teams had three hours to research and write their best recommendations.

Participants had to consider factors such as technology security and health risks when drafting their responses. After the writing session, groups reflected on the challenges and excitement of researching these topics within such a short time frame.

Six judges with a wide range of science policy experience read the memos and provided feedback on the second day of the workshop. Teams split into breakout rooms to hear feedback along with other groups, and were able to discuss potential next steps to gain more science policy writing experience.

With this feedback under their belts, attendees geared up for round two. This time, each group completed a memo on a topic of their choice. Nearly 30 teams wrote memos on topics including climate change, STEM education, and immigration.

“The workshop was a remarkable and rare opportunity to learn about science policy memo writing as a graduate student,” said Allie Greene, a PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati. “Receiving direct feedback from science policy professionals on our writing was a great learning opportunity, and the ability to ask questions to experienced memo writers in this context was very helpful.”

Now that the attendees know the ins and outs of memo writing, they can take their skills to other policy contexts. “I hope the teams can use the memos as a first step towards a tangible science policy action,” said Annabelle Lolinco, one of the workshop’s co-organizers. “Many of the memo ideas that the participants floated were fantastic, and I hope they are able to follow through with crafting and delivering the memo to their intended audience. I also hope they tap into the nationwide network NSPN offers to participate in programs and projects that may speak to some of their topics.”

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To learn more about the Science Policy Memo Workshop, view the recorded lectures on our YouTube channel, and follow the Science Policy Group at the University of Cincinnati on Twitter at @UCSciPol.


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