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The Intersection of Science and Public Policy

The Got Science? podcast from the Union of Concerned Scientists starts 2019 by talking to molecular biologist Maryam Zaringhalam, who says researchers can make an impact by using their scientific expertise to influence public policy on health and safety.

Zaringhalam — who is also a science writer, the founder of the ArtLab blog and event series, the cofounder of the Science Soapbox podcast, a producer for Story Collider, a AAAS fellow in Science and Technology Policy, and on the leadership team for 500 Women Scientists — says she decided to leave the bench to pursue a science policy fellowship through the AAAS in order to "get a feel for how I could use my experiences in grad school, my commitment to wanting to democratize access to the products of research to make sure that they're communicated to the public and they're also communicated to researchers so that we're really making sure that science has a place within the public discourse."

She tells Got Science? that it's dangerous to make public policy decisions without science being part of the conversation. "I see a lot of decisions that are being made based on emotions and emotions alone. Which I am a very emotional person, and I find that for me to take a step back to identify my emotions as fear or excitement or what have you, take a step back and think, 'Well, what does the evidence say, and what are the consequences if I don't act in accordance with the evidence?'" she says. "Sometimes it's benign to ignore the evidence and other times it's completely catastrophic."

Zaringhalam also says that it's important to have a wide range of voices speaking up in order to recognize and ameliorate the biases in scientific research, as well as the biases that may be hurting the careers of women and minority scientists.

"I'll take me as an example. I'm a woman, in case you can't tell by my voice, and I've had people tell me that some of my bold ideas are overambitious. Whereas, if that idea came out of the mouth of a male colleague of mine, that would be seen as visionary or bold," she notes. "And the way that that creeps up when I'm writing a scientific paper or applying for grant money is that they'll look at that over-ambitiousness and say that it's unrealistic and not worth funding. And so that starts to hurt the careers of women, starts to hurt the careers of people who don't conform to the stereotypes that we've been socialized to accept as what a scientist looks like, which is typically, white, cis-gendered male."

Zaringhalam tells Got Science? that science is "inherently political," and that scientists must be engaged in public policy discussions in order to advocate for "the position of evidence in the world around us ... making sure that it is benefiting and serving the greater public."