SPI Zooms through a Pandemic: Community Commentaries, Journal Club, and Pipeline Advocacy

Throughout these unprecedented times brought on by the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Science Policy Initiative (SPI) at the University of Virginia (UVA) has continued their work to help provide a voice at the intersection of science and policy on issues spanning vaccines to environmental advocacy. Professional Development Chair Robert Dyer and Co-President Linnea Saby provide insight on how SPI is keeping busy during the pandemic.


Community Commentaries

SPI typically devotes substantial efforts to a variety of in-person events targeted to the UVA community as well as the greater Charlottesville community. Given that this has not been possible (at least in-person) for the past several months, we have diverted some of the effort that would ordinarily go towards these events into writing.

For instance, SPI worked with a local newspaper to help provide an initial commentary piece about vaccine development, Operation Warp Speed, and the implications of the newest vaccine laws in the Commonwealth of Virginia. From the beginning of this pandemic, scientists have been working towards the development of an effective vaccine to help curb the spread and its eventual eradication. Vaccine hesitancy has continued to be a problem both nationally and internationally before the pandemic but now presents a very serious issue to finally bringing this pandemic to an end. We hope that by providing a better understanding of vaccines and their development, our community will better embrace an eventual COVID-19 vaccine. As vaccine development continues to be safely evaluated and the eventual distribution is planned, we will continue to provide follow-up pieces explaining the science and importance of these next steps.

Journal Club

Although the pandemic has physically distanced many of us, it has allowed SPI to come together every other Wednesday for our Journal Club. Initiated during the first weeks of the pandemic, SPI’s Journal Club has been a valuable tool for us to learn about new topics and encourage new members into our group. The topics are chosen a week beforehand with reading material provided and guiding questions to lead the discussion. We have discussed a wide range of topics including fluoride in our water, eugenics in our universities, and more.

Our Journal Club is open to anyone interested in the topic, and we encourage members from NSPN to freely attend. To find more information about our SPI Journal Club, reach out via email, join the #journal_club channel in our Slack workspace, or check out past reading guides – and keep an eye out for Journal Club announcements on Twitter from @SPIatUVA.

Pipeline Advocacy

The Science Policy Initiative-Direct Advocacy Committee (SPI-DAC) has continued to do volunteer scientific analysis on local and regional environmental issues during the pandemic. We work with environmental lawyers, nonprofit leaders, and community organizers to identify real-world environmental problems that require a science background. The idea is to provide advocates with science communicated in a way that is helpful to the advocacy community. This can mean scientific literature reviews, formal public comments, or memos to public officials outlining scientific opinion about an issue.

This year, one of SPI-DAC’s main projects has been working with a team of nonprofit organizations advocating against major natural gas pipelines. These projects are or were slated to carry fracked natural gas hundreds of miles through West Virginia and Virginia, including the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP, cancelled July 5, 2020) and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP, still active). These major infrastructure projects can lock our power grid into fossil fuel for decades to come, destroy hundreds of miles of forest that filters water and provides habitat for endangered species, and infringe on property rights by employing eminent domain for a project that economists say will primarily benefit company shareholders. Our most recent analysis on MVP’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, which we submitted in a public comment on November 8, 2020, showed some pretty shocking results. SPI-DAC’s team of 10 includes members from Virginia Tech, Norfolk State University, and Auburn University. Message Linnea Saby to learn about joining, or for more advice about starting your own group.

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A silver lining of remote work is our ability to hold events and initiatives that are equally inclusive to students from anywhere. Non-UVA students can be (and are!) full SPI members – we are always eager to meet new people interested in science policy, and can always use more hands for our advocacy and outreach projects. If you want to learn more about how we’re weathering the pandemic with hard science policy work, reach out to spiatuva@gmail.com or follow us on Twitter.

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