Handler encourages young scientists to make research accessible to government

Physics professor Thomas Handler delivered a Fermilab Colloquium talk on Wednesday on science and public policy. Photo: Jessica Orwig

Scientists have a responsibility not only to advance their research, but also to make it accessible to those who shape public policy, says Thomas Handler, who spoke at last week’s Fermilab Colloquium. It requires an understanding of the language of government as much as that of science, he said, and more often than not, scientists aren’t versed enough in policy-speak to communicate well with lawmakers.

“We have to be clear that we’re all using the same dictionary,” he said. “Our use of words is different from the way the public uses them.”

Handler, a Fermilab user and professor of physics at the University of Tennessee, has made it part of his mission to teach future scientists and science policymakers to be fluent in both languages. Two years ago he started a class at the university for undergraduates and graduates on the interface between science and public policy.

“They learn that there’s more than just science that goes into science legislation,” he said. He teaches students about all the variables of science legislation, which are usually far more numerous than they think.

Handler, who currently works on the NOvA experiment, had spent most of his career studying meson and neutrino physics when, about eight years ago, he began making trips to Washington, D.C., as a member of the Fermilab Users’ Executive Committee. His interests gradually shifted from science in the laboratory to science as understood on Capitol Hill.

“I started to recognize that what you see and hear in the media doesn’t fully portray what goes on in Congress,” he said. The portrayal of contentiousness is exaggerated, he said, and legislators can be very receptive to scientists’ recommendations, especially when offered as respectful, researched advice. Too frequently, he said, these recommendations come across as decrees sent down from the halls of ivy to the halls of government.

It’s a message he wants to bring to students early in their own careers, and at least one of his former students has made the switch from science scholarship to the public sector. This spring he will teach the public policy class for the third time.

By imparting what he’s learned as a seasoned advocate of science to government, he hopes to influence the next generation of scientists to become excellent science advocates themselves—not just good researchers.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” he said. “If I’d known 30 years ago what I know now, I’d have made a change to working in public policy a long time ago.”

Leah Hesla