top of page


Advocacy in Scientific Research: Advancing Community Outreach and Institutional Change

OLIVIA OH, Harvard College '27

THURJ Volume 14 | Issue 2


Screen Shot 2024-05-22 at 2.30.57 AM.png

Fig. 1. Professor Nadine Gaab. Photo courtesy of Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Currently, only 40% of graduate students and 17% of postdoctoral fellows report regularly engaging in advocacy and outreach work. They cite lack of time, funding, and awareness of opportunities that fit within their time and budget constraints as the biggest barriers to their participation (Rouzer et al., 2023).
Advocacy in scientific research can take on a variety of forms; most generally, advocacy in scientific research consists of using data and verifiable facts in order to influence decision-making or policy change. From publicizing original research to actively reaching out to community members through STEM education events, scientific advocacy holds the power to exert meaningful change in both local communities and government policy-making (Cockrell, n.d.). 

However, despite the current lack of scientific advocacy among up-and-coming researchers, there is still hope that there can be a culture shift among scientists and a movement toward greater activism. In June 2023, hundreds of scientists in India protested government efforts to restrict educational access to Western scientific theories. Similarly, in May 2023, scientists in Mexico participated in a strike against the creation of a centralized government agency to oversee research and control funding, while scientists in Norway protested the nation’s slow-moving climate policy (Frickel & Tormos-Aponte, 2023). These scientists’ displays of public activism and demands for policy change can inspire other researchers to also engage in greater advocacy and community outreach efforts.

At Harvard, one of the leading advocates for outreach in scientific research is Professor Nadine Gaab. An Associate Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Professor Gaab’s work focuses on typical and atypical learning trajectories from infancy to adolescence with an emphasis on language, reading and literacy development, and the role of environment in shaping learning trajectories. Beyond academic research, Professor Gaab is deeply involved in community outreach and uses her findings to advocate for change in educational practice and policy. Professor Gaab regularly leads panels for parents and families, in addition to leading efforts to bring STEM learning to underresourced schools in the Boston area. She is the founder of an EdTech company and has worked with educational non-profit organizations to author papers on the importance of integrating grassroots advocacy and scientific research in the development of public policy (Gaab, n.d.). 

Deficiencies in Scientific Research Advocacy

Despite the efforts of investigators like Professor Gaab, the majority of researchers are still hesitant to immerse themselves in advocacy. One resounding question seems to echo through the doubts of these scientists: Can science and policy mix?

The answer is an unequivocal yes. 

As constituents, scientists are stakeholders in the process of creating public policy, and government officials need the information and data generated and verified by scientists in order to make decisions. Additionally, much of the funding for scientific research comes from government bodies, making it necessary that scientists collaborate with government officials on their research agenda. Scientific research already exists within the framework of institutional politics; the only way to try to overcome bias is to acknowledge the inevitable complexities of the processes that drive decisions about funding and dissemination of research findings (Robbins, 2021). 

Many scientists believe that there could be a conflict of interest if they were to engage in advocacy—would they be trying to inform public policy based solely on the desire to provide reliable information, or would they be advocating for decisions based on their own interests? However, much of scientific research is built upon a mutual understanding of transparency, where scientists hold each other to the standard of reporting results honestly, as shown by the requirement by many major institutions and universities that researchers disclose any conflicts of interest. These practices could inform similar behaviors in the realm of advocacy and public policy. As long as scientists are clear about their motives, there should be no conflict of interest (Kone, 2019). 

Beyond the realm of the institutional bodies and the scientific research community, engaging in advocacy generally does not detract from the credibility of a scientist in the eye of the public, making fears of career detriment unfounded (Kotcher et al., 2017). Rather, according to Professor Gaab, scientists should seek to “break[ing] down the barrier of scientists in the ivory tower […] and really engaging the entire community” to improve the reach of their research (Gaab, 2024). Effectively communicating scientific research in a way that is approachable and easily understandable by community members can help build greater awareness for important advancements and the need for continued change, thereby creating opportunities for valuable collaborations between researchers and advocacy groups (Gaab, 2024). Professor Gaab’s own work has exemplified the possibility of these important partnerships; through work with the grassroots organization Decoding Dyslexia, a national network of parents advocating for effective interventions for dyslexia in the public education system, Professor Gaab has co-authored a paper pushing for system-level change and learning disability policy development, providing an example of the possibilities for intersection between research and community action (Gaab & Duggab, 2024). 


Importance of Advocacy

In the often murky ecosystem of policymaking, scientific advocacy can hold a hugely beneficial effect, making it necessary that researchers be aware of the exact areas of advocacy in which they can make an impact. Researchers hold the power to protect and increase funding for science, to advance the process of scientific discovery, and to apply scientific evidence to public policy and thus improve the quality of life for their community. By presenting their data to government agencies, researchers can advocate for funding for their projects, creating the opportunity for continued innovation. Scientists are also often called upon by government officials for guidance when deciding how to shape public policy; by sharing certain pieces of information, researchers can influence government officials into advocating for legislation that can benefit community members (Baron & Hoeksema, 2021). However, unless researchers make their voices heard, these key decisions in how research is funded and how information is shared will be left solely to policymakers, who only have an indirect stake in science.

While advocacy is important for anyone involved in scientific research, encouraging outreach and community engagement is especially pertinent for trainees and researchers who are just embarking on their careers. For early-career scientists, being involved in activities outside the laboratory or clinic can feel intimidating, and advocacy work is often undervalued as a professional activity that is not rewarded or incentivized under traditional academic structures. These scientists, who have just begun their careers, tend to prioritize their research rather than outreach due to their doubt that these activities will foster their career goals and their lack of confidence that they have adequate knowledge to promote science in the public arena (Rouzer et al., 2023). 

However, engaging in scientific outreach is beneficial to establishing a career in science, as it provides early-career researchers with the opportunity to develop management and communication skills that can be translated into laboratory or clinic settings. Adaptive communication and leadership are necessary when collaborating with other scientists or when working with government bodies for funding. Outreach work can also foster a sense of belonging for trainees; seeing their research have direct impacts on public policy and receiving trust from government officials and the general public can make early-career scientists feel more confident in their knowledge and abilities. Creating a sense of belonging is necessary for recruiting and maintaining a diverse scientific research community, especially as women and historically underrepresented individuals often cite lack of confidence and a sense of belonging as driving forces behind their decisions to leave scientific research (Rouzer et al., 2023). 

How Can We Increase Advocacy?

Screen Shot 2024-05-22 at 2.34.06 AM.png

Fig. 2. Avenues for Scientific Advocacy (Rouzer et al., 2023).

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to increasing advocacy—rather, the beauty of outreach and community engagement work is that there is a great range of ways to get involved (Fig. 2). From hosting webinars and seminars to working directly with community members and government officials, there is a method of advocacy for everyone. With the rise of the Internet and social media, it is no longer even necessary to leave the laboratory or the home in order to connect with the world and be involved in meaningful change (Hentchel, 2017). 

Researchers who are already involved in scientific advocacy have been sharing their stories online, showing other scientists how their decisions to be involved in policy-making and community engagement have resulted in important real-world changes. As the Dutch scientist Niklas Hohne shared in his interview, “science covers the questions at the heart of society’s problems” (Woolston, 2016). The purpose of research is to find objective information that can be shared and used to make an impact on the world; scientists must understand that, without advocacy, their research may never have the opportunity to make it beyond the setting of a laboratory or scientific journal. 

Professor Gaab herself has outlined various avenues to engage in community outreach and public policy, employing both top-down and bottom-up models. Through ideas that range from posting on social media about speaking engagements and upcoming studies to working with grassroots organizations and federal agencies, such as the National Institute of Health, Professor Gaab demonstrates that advocacy can take on a myriad of forms, with the only requirement being the willingness and the open spirit to dive into a field that is currently underrepresented in academic research (Gaab, 2024). 


Advocacy and community outreach are necessary to advance scientific research beyond the vacuum of the laboratory. Research is meaningful only when data is being used to create real-world change and respond to the needs of the community; by taking a multifaceted approach to advocacy and working with both community members and institutional agencies, researchers hold the power to make a lasting impact. Change does not always have to come in grand sweeping gestures or major policy developments. Rather, the continued devotion to spreading knowledge and making science relevant to the community is the key to cultivating a new approach to research, where advocacy and outreach are integrated into everyday practice.


Baron, J., & Hoeksema, M. J. (2021). Science Advocacy 101: Realizing the Benefits, Overcoming the Challenges. Springer Nature.

Cockrell, M. (n.d.). Embracing Advocacy in Science.

Frickel, S., & Tormos-Aponte, F. (2023, July 6). Science activism is surging – which marks a culture shift among scientists. The Convesation.

Gaab, N. (2024, March 7). [Personal communication].

Gaab, N., & Duggab, N. (2024). Leveraging Brain Science for Impactful Advocacy and Policymaking: The Synergistic Partnership between Developmental Cognitive Neuroscientists and a Parent-Led Grassroots Movement to Drive Dyslexia Prevention Policy and Legislation.

Hentchel, K. (2017, February 27). What early-career researchers can do to advocate for science. Science.

Jones-Jamtgaarad, K. N., & Lee, C. M. (2017). A quick guide to effective grassroots advocacy for scientists. Molecular Biology of the Cell.

Kone, D. (2019, May 20). Should scientists engage in advocacy? Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Laboratory.

Kotcher, J. E., Myers, T. A., Vraga, E. K., Stenhouse, N., & Maibach, E. W. (2017). Does Engagement in Advocacy Hurt the Credibility of Scientists? Results from a Randomized National Survey Experiment. Environmental Communication.

Nadine Gaab. (n.d.). Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved March 29, 2024, from

Robbins, A. M. (2021, September 9). Can Scientists Be Good Policy Advocates? American Society for Microbiology.

Rouzer, S. K., Kalinowski, L. M., & Kaseda, E. T. (2023). The importance of promoting scientific advocacy & outreach for trainees. Neuropsychopharmacology.

Sarewitz, D. (2011). Science Advocacy is an Institutional Issue, Not an Individual One.

Tormos-Aponte, F., Brown, P., Dosemagen, S., Fisher, D. R., Frickel, S., Mackendrick, N., Meyer, D. S., & Parker, J. N. (2023). Pathways for diversifying and enhancing science advocacy. Science Advances.

Woolston, C. (2016). Science advocacy: Get involved. Nature.
bottom of page