Adapting to a Changing Planet: Reflections on the 2021 National Science Policy Symposium

On November 19 and 20, 2021, NSPN held its second virtual Symposium. The theme, Adapting to a changing planet: Harnessing science policy to overcome overlapping global crises, allowed participants to explore science policy topics such as democracy, labor, health, and community engagement through the lens of the ongoing climate crisis. We are excited to share the outcomes and reflections on this event as we continue to strengthen our vision to work toward a diverse, equitable society and a resilient, sustainable planet.

The 2021 National Science Policy Symposium brought together over 400 science policy enthusiasts to network, discuss, and learn. Organized by and for early-career scientists and engineers, the Symposium is historically the largest science policy gathering for trainees. The 2021 Symposium featured a virtual keynote, six panels, and ten workshops which all served to engage attendees in critical dialogue about our changing climate.

Jenélle Dowling, the Managing Director of NSPN, gave an introduction to the event. This year’s Symposium aimed to showcase how science and data can inform decision making, and how policy can be a tool to work toward a more sustainable planet.

Keynote Discussion

The main programming of the Symposium began with a keynote conversation between Dr. Amrita Banerjee, NSPN’s inaugural National Chair, and Dr. Lara Pierpoint, an expert in carbon emissions-reducing technologies. Dr. Pierpoint has experience working in academia, government, the private sector, and the non-profit space, and the conversation, “Hopes, Successes, and Paths Forward to Address the Climate Crisis,” highlighted the intersections between these areas. “This is about massive economic and infrastructural shifts, and it’s going to require literally everything you’ve got,” said Pierpoint. “So the more people who can work across that big picture, I think the better off we’re going to be.”

Pierpoint celebrated recent successes at COP26 such as the sense of collective urgency and the pledge to reduce global methane emissions. She also stressed the importance of centering marginalized communities to ignite meaningful, equitable change.

Panel Discussions

Following the keynote, six panel discussions throughout the Symposium showcased conversations surrounding key areas of science policy through a climate-focused lens:

A common thread that emerged throughout all panels and the keynote discussion was the interconnected action that is required to address the climate crisis. All aspects of science, policy, and society play a role in sustainability, and only by working together can we achieve a sustainable planet and an equitable community.


To give attendees a deep dive into lessons and skill building exercises, NSPN partnered with organizations and individuals who hosted ten interactive workshops:

  • Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS): “Centering Equity in Analysis and Advocacy: Climate Case Studies”
  • NSPN SciDEAL Team and UK Science and Innovation Network: “Having Difficult Conversations with Stakeholders: Addressing LGBT+ Retention in STEM”
  • Federation of American Scientists (FAS): “How Scientists Can Leverage Congressional Hearings and Shape Executive Actions to Help Counter Climate Change”
  • Jeffery Song: “Interviewing Skills: Be Your Own Career Counselor”
  • Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL): “Scientists as Civic Participants: Local Actions to Address Global Crises”
  • Georgia Environmental Coalition of Colour: “Climate Justice Allyship: Engaging Critical Consciousness and Identity Position in Climate Justice Advocacy”
  • Science and Technology Policy Academy and Forefront: “Communicating with Policymakers and the Public About Climate Change”
  • STEM Advocacy Institute (SAi): “Expanding Pathways into the Science Policy Workforce: A Career Workshop for Undergraduate Students in STEM”
  • Journal of Science Policy & Governance (JSPG): “Writing Effective Science Policy Memos”
  • National Science Policy Network (NSPN): NSPN Chapter Development Workshop

Workshops are important for NSPN members to gain relevant advocacy, policy, and communication skills and to connect with our partner organizations.

Bite-Sized Science Policy Pitches

Previous Symposia have enabled participants to showcase their work on science policy, diplomacy, and communication at a poster session or in a pre-recorded talk. In this year’s virtual format, the 2021 Symposium featured 3-minute “Bite-Sized SciPol Pitches” presented in front of a live Zoom audience. Twelve speakers presented an innovative policy proposal and answered questions about the implementation of their ideas.

Congratulations to the following winners of the Bite-Sized SciPol Pitch competition:

  • First Place: Josh Frost, “Accessibility and Disability in STEM Research Laboratories: A Gap in the ADA?”
  • Second Place: Mickey Rogers, “Interplay of Plastics and Personal Care Toxicants Presents an Emerging Concern to Marine Communities: Synergistic Impacts and Policy Recommendations”
  • Third Place: Jasmine Yu, “Texas Water Conservation, Quality and Usage Resources for K-12 Educators”

We would also like to acknowledge all the presenters for their outstanding pitches:

  • Jenny Bratburd, “NASA’s Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST)”
  • William Gaieck, “ - Share What You Are Passionate About!”
  • Tomotaroh Granzier-Nakajima, “The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Science & Technology Policy (COPA-STEP) Fellowship”
  • Leticia Lee, “Engaging in Science Policy in Your Local Election”
  • Ben O’Brien, “Family Support Policy for Medical and Graduate Students”
  • Henry Pitts, “The Waters Are Alive”
  • Chris Unterberger, “Health in All Policies”
  • Grace Wickerson, “Community Health Care Centers as Critical Infrastructure”
  • Victoria Yell, “Uniting the North Carolina PFAS Policy Advocacy Front”

Career & Fellowships Expo

A critical piece of NSPN’s mission is to foster professional development opportunities for our members. As part of this goal, the 2021 Annual Symposium offered a Career & Fellowships Expo for attendees to learn about and network with fellowships, non-profits, and other employers. Eleven organizations set up virtual booths to answer questions and meet interested attendees. Participants rotated between tables to gain a broad understanding of the opportunities that are available to them in the science policy space.

Networking, Community Building, and Social Events

Although the Symposium could not be in person as in previous years, the virtual format facilitated new ways to connect and socialize. Throughout the Symposium, attendees participated in virtual networking sessions and live entertainment to build a sense of community. The Symposium began with an evening trivia session led by Facts Machine. Attendees were split into teams based on their common interests, helping participants network and form lasting bonds throughout the Symposium.

After the first day of panels and workshops, participants gathered again, this time for a science art activity. The goal of the event was to encourage attendees to form new connections, reflect on the theme of the Symposium, and express their reflections through a creative outlet. Some chapters gathered in person or virtually to create art as a group, while other individual members participated while gathering virtually with participants from across the country. Attendees were encouraged to create visual, verbal, musical, or multimedia art pieces centered on a chosen prompt. Prompts offered the opportunity to reflect on topics such as energy, life science, social science, equity, and more.

One group from the University of Pennsylvania chose to create a painting about Energy Democracy and Labor. “We’ve spent about 10 hours on our painting so far: brainstorming, researching policies in other countries, reading the latest scientific evidence on innovative sustainable technologies, incorporating insights from NSPS panels on Energy Democracy and Labor, sketching, and painting,” said Erin Reagan, President Emeritus of the Penn Science Policy and Diplomacy Group and NSPN’s Chapter Support Committee Chair. “It became a fantastic community-building piece, as each participant...was able to contribute to an idea, a sketch, or the painting of an integral component of the overall piece.” The art piece may contribute to the group’s future programming as well. “We’re even thinking about using this painting as a catalyst to begin a series of policy memos, outlining each of the policies being proposed on the canvas,” said Reagan. “We see it as a roadmap for system-wide policy transformation.”

Finally, a social media Bingo challenge brought the action onto multiple platforms throughout the weekend. Symposium attendees marked off their participation in various events on a virtual Bingo card for a chance to win prizes. Chris Unterberger, NSPN’s Grants & Finance Committee Chair and the first person to achieve Bingo, said, “The NSPS Bingo competition introduced at the beginning of the conference reminded me of all the quality opportunities the meeting presents...NSPS didn’t fail in giving me my annual dose of science policy overload.”

Be sure to get your official NSPS 2021 t-shirt from our Etsy store! 

Moving Forward

The conversations throughout the Symposium were clear reminders of the need for policy that centers equitable climate action. As we move forward, these conversations will no doubt inspire NSPN’s members, chapters, and leadership as we continue together to foster community, train leaders, and empower advocates to work toward an equitable and sustainable global community.

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