Policy, Media and the Public: Driving the Agenda for Change

By Amber Aumiller, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

How much impact does the media actually have on policy change?  How much impact does the public have?  Knowing the answers to these questions is absolutely critical in a global moment where the effects of climate change necessitate a swift environmental policy or regulatory response. Knowing what the components of change are and how they work together is crucial in identifying the intersections of influence needed to pressure government to take appropriate and constructive action. Dr. Juliet Carlisle’s work looks at how the public, media and government officials attend to a slow-moving crisis (like drought, for instance), and how this attention shifts across the slower lifespan of the crisis. Looking at the relationships between corresponding streams of attention can help explain how windows for policy change open. Dr. Carlisle shows that even a crisis that takes years to unfold can capture attention and produce policy change. This underscores the significance of our roles as producers and consumers of media and citizens of a nation. 

On Tuesday, January 28th,  Professor Carlisle will help explain how the recent California drought captured and sustained attention to yield policy change in her lecture, “Driving the Agenda?: California Drought in the 21st Century,” from 4-5 p.m. in room 210 of the Aline B. Skaggs Biology Building as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center’s Seminar Series.

Dr. Carlisle is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Environmental and Sustainability Studies Program at the University of Utah. She earned a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Washington and both her M.A. and Ph.D., also in Political Science, from the University of California Santa Barbara. She has investigated public attitudes around environmental issues like offshore oil drilling, large-scale solar development and vaccines. Her work seeks to explain the causes and characteristics of public opinions, attitudes, knowledge and behavior regarding politics, the environment and energy development. In this lecture she will focus on the ongoing drought in California over the last two decades, engaging with the interplay of attention given by the government, the public and the media and the corresponding policy change that has occurred.

“Policy is for the most part fairly static,” says Carlisle, “not all problems result in policy change.” Her research, therefore, looks at how and whether politicians respond to environmental crises and what factors explain policy change when it does happen. Sudden, devastating, catastrophic events demand immediate attention from the public. Large-scale tragedies like plane crashes, hurricanes, or earthquakes affect a lot of people instantly, and the resulting attention creates opportunities for policy change.  However, slow-moving crises that can take years rather than minutes to unfold tend to be more complicated and are often harder to define. The effects on most people’s daily lives may be comprehended gradually, if at all. A slow-moving crisis gives rise to questions like: Do we even notice a crisis is occurring? Can it capture the attention of the public? To what extent is the media covering it? Does the crisis have the potential to produce a significant policy impact or change? What Professor Carlisle wants to know is how and when policy change is affected for a slow-moving crisis.   

Dr. Carlisle looks at how the media’s coverage of the more recent California drought correlates to the public’s views and potential to propel policy change, helping prove that even a slow-moving crisis can shift policy. Her findings point to the need for more research on what types of media stories are most effective in creating urgency around regulatory change. “The public has a lot of power to push change,” Carlisle reminds us. When we are aware and mobilized, the pressure on our political systems can be hugely effective. 

To hear her speak and learn more about the co-mingling relationships influencing policy change come by on Tuesday, January 28th from 4-5 p.m. in ASB 210.  As always, there will be coffee and treats for you, so bring a mug and enjoy!

Science, Policy and Jell-O in our Nation’s Capitol

By Nic Apodaca, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

At the end of March, four University of Utah graduate students spent three days in Washington D.C. for the Catalyzing Advocacy for Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). At a time when the value of education and scientific research is increasingly being questioned by federal lawmakers, encouraging a new generation of policy-makers in academia is vital. The CASE workshop is designed to address exactly this need, introducing graduate students in STEM fields from across the country to the nuts and bolts of science policy and advocacy in the advancement of STEM nationwide.

The four students were Kendall FitzGerald from Geology, Rebecca Hardenbrook from Mathematics, Kaden Plewe from Mechanical Engineering, and Jewell Lund from Geography.  Their participation was made possible by the generous support of the Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC).

In Washington, the group met with 300 other students from across the United States from a diverse range of STEM disciplines. All were united by common interests in making their research relevant to policy and society, improving communication between the laboratory and the capital, and seeking opportunities for interdisciplinary research and communication. As Geography student Jewell Lund reported, “this is becoming ever more important to address the complex challenges society faces today.”

The workshop was quick to dive into the hard questions science policy and communication face today. Lund recounts how the CEO of the AAAS, Rush Holt, discussed how ambiguous the term “science policy” was. “There is a stark difference between policy for science, and science for policy,” Lund explained. While both are important, they mean different things. Policy for science dictates the terms under which research is performed nationwide. Yet science for policy is the specific research used to inform policy-making, and is where scientists have an important responsibility in influencing the policy landscape. Lund cites the impact of biologist Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring to show how science can deeply affect policy decisions.

The experience ultimately proved fruitful for the students. As Lund said, “my respect for this work has only deepened as I’ve gained a better perspective on the process.” The trip wasn’t all business, however: Utah Senator Mike Lee hosted the students for a Jello hour, where they discovered that Jello is the official favorite snack of Utah. Sharing Jello with Senator Lee and Senator Mitt Romney’s staff was a quirky and fun way to wrap up the trip. Yet reflecting on the trip, Lund doesn’t miss the importance and seriousness of the work these four Utah students have only just begun. As she says, “These interactions are an enlightening starting point for further development and interaction, and we are in the midst of establishing a student group focused on science and policy so that we can continue to explore this interface.”

The Global Change and Sustainability Center offers small grants for travel and research to eligible graduate students whose academic or research mentors are active faculty affiliates of the GCSC. Travel funding supports student participation in professional meetings, where they have the opportunity to present their research and network with peers and professionals in the field. Networking at professional meetings can not only lead to potential collaborations and other professional opportunities, but students are also likely to gain an expanded view of the discipline, its culture, and how their research interests fit into the broader landscape. The next deadline for research and travel grants is Sept. 15.

This article was featured in @theu on August 23, 2019.