Interview with Shelah Morita on Science Policy and Entomology

Shelah I. Morita, Ph.D., AAAS EEA Fello

Shelah Morita, Ph.D., AAAS EEA Fellow

By Gwen Pearson

As someone who’s had a bit of a meandering career path, I’m always interesting in talking to others who have found happiness off the tenure track. I was excited to have a chance to sit down with Shelah Morita, AAAS Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Fellow, at the recent ESA meeting in Austin.

Shelah is an entomologist with a background in ecological systematics of horse flies, specifically how flowers may be linked to tabanid morphology and diversity. During a postdoc at North Carolina State University, Shelah was co-PI on a five-year NSF PEET grant for training new systematics biologists. Following an NSF International Research Fellowship to South Africa, she returned to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum where she has been a Research Collaborator since 2008.

In 2012, Shelah became an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow. This AAAS program provides an opportunity for scientists to participate in the federal policy-making process. Last year Shelah’s Fellowship placement was with USDA APHIS Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS). Her current placement is with the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. They coordinate all the federal agencies that are part of the White House National Nanotechnology Initiative, and the director reports to the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

So how did someone studying long-tongued pollinators end up in a nanotechnology office? I asked Shelah to talk a little bit about what got her interested in science policy.

“It’s the larger picture of science communication that brought me from studying tabanids to working in nanotechnology,” she said. “In science policy, I feel like I can have more impact.”

“Science informs policy, but science is not policy. Policy is a quest for public service, function and compromise, rather than simply discovery of truth. Given infinite time and funding, we can get all the right science answers — but we don’t have time to wait for that. We need to make decisions now. So we have to estimate, make risk assessments, and compromise.”

We also talked a bit about the difficulties of communicating science to non-scientists. A common assumption by traditionally-trained scientists is that public misunderstanding of science is based on lack of information — the “deficit model.” This is unfortunately not backed up by research; just giving people more information doesn’t solve issues of science literacy.  (Which is really a shame, since it would make my job as a science communicator a LOT easier.) 

Morita explains:

“You can present a group of people with the same facts, and they may all reach completely different conclusions. That’s not a problem with their intelligence. Individuals unconsciously fit information processing to conclusions they already have via motivated reasoning. We’re much more likely to “believe” science when it matches our existing values, and those of our friends and families… Humans are bad risk assessors; we aren’t mental statisticians. A lot of our decisions are made by considering ‘how queasy do I feel about this?'”

“To try to communicate science effectively to decision makers, data is sometimes irrelevant. I need to communicate values. It wasn’t until I was applying for the fellowship that I started really seeing research on understanding and communicating science; now it’s part of my world and my own self-evaluation. I had to challenge myself to examine why I felt the way I did about genetically modified organisms, for example, once I was in that office.”

“Policy is not limited to specific field expertise; being able to think about science is a skill. There are many ways to pursue a career in science; this is one that I think is a great match for me. I love learning new things every day.”

If you are curious about whether an AAAS Science and Policy Fellowship would be a good choice for you, or what Fellows do, you can read interviews with many more fellows here. Shelah’s program (Energy, Environment, and Agriculture) is one of the three executive branch areas. The others are Health, Education and Human Services (NIH, DHHS, FDA, & NSF), and Diplomacy, Security and Development (State, USAID, DHS, DOD). All of these agencies have placements for entomologists!

The next application deadline is November 1, 2014.

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Gwen Pearson is the entomologist formerly known as Bug Girl. She obtained her PhD in entomology from North Carolina State University, and her Charismatic Minifauna blog appears in Wired Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @bug_girl.

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