Perhaps no person has more closely witnessed how science and policy interact than Linsey Marr.

The Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Marr recounted her personal experiences interacting with governmental and health policymakers during the COVID-19 pandemic as the guest speaker for this year’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Policy (STEP) program, last month. Marr shared her insights — from the earliest days of posting her scientific knowledge online to helping urge an ultimate shift in global policy — with about 100 people who gathered in person and online.

“We are extremely grateful to Dr. Marr for sharing invaluable insights from her insider’s view of what it was like being involved in the thick of a major issue at the science-policy interface,” said Todd Schenk,  associate professor in urban affairs and planning and director of the STEP program. “A major takeaway is that policy and science do not speak the same language, so one needs to be attuned to each to effectively work at their intersection.”

Officially launched in February 2021, the STEP program’s graduate certificate is a curricular initiative of the +Policy Network, which is an outgrowth of the Policy Destination Area, and it aims to raise the visibility of policy and policy-related research practice across the university.

“Developing the understanding and capacities of STEM-H [science, technology, engineering, math, health] experts to better interact in such environments is exactly what we are trying to do with the STEP program,” said Schenk, an affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center.

Before beginning her presentation, Marr clarified her professional position: “I am not a policy expert. I am an applied scientist.”

With years of experience in aerosol transmission research, Marr immediately noticed flawed scientific information shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), at the beginning of the pandemic.

On March 5, 2020, Marr tweeted: “Let’s talk about #airborne transmission of #SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses. A discussion is needed to improve accuracy and reduce fear associated with the term.”

“I wanted the right information out there. You need to get that first message right,” said Marr, referring to that tweet.

Throughout the talk, Marr made it clear that policy makers often have very different agendas than scientists.

For example, governmental officials, who were aware of a national shortage of N95 masks, were not necessarily prepared to issue guidance in line with Marr’s empirical knowledge that N95 masks should be worn to stem the spread of the virus. Public officials were compelled to balance a variety of issues and concerns, many of which were outside of the realm of science.

“Dr. Marr's talk emphasized the need for policymakers to engage with the scientific community and to prioritize evidence-based decision-making, especially during times of crises,” said Shantanu Bhide, a Ph.D. candidate in civil and environmental engineering.

In another example, Marr explained that public health policy in March 2020 was highly influenced by the medical community, which had not fully embraced scientists and engineers who study the spread of pathogens. At the beginning of the pandemic, the medical community was still clinging to outdated information regarding virus transmission from a paper published in the 1950s. Marr had shown that the influenza virus could be transmitted through airborne pathogens in her research in 2011. Policymakers, however, were heavily influenced by the medical community and refused to act on Marr’s and others’ scientific evidence.

It took Marr, along with 230 other scientists, seven months to influence the CDC and WHO.

“I don’t know if we could have done this faster,” Marr said.

When asked by an audience member what she learned from her experience, Marr had a tip: “It’s important to have an ally.”

Through her tenacious efforts to influence policymakers during the pandemic, Marr now has a leadership role in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and she and her colleagues were invited by the British Medical Association trade journal, BMJ, to publish an editorial in April 2021, which she co-wrote with those allies she mentioned.

Marr also listed several tools she was able to utilize to help her influence policymakers, including Twitter, academic papers, op-eds, open letters, testimony, and a National Academies product.

“I think that Dr. Marr's talk was a great example of how important science policy is in general,” said Gates Palissary, a doctoral student in the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health program. “Any number of crises can happen unexpectedly, and scientists should be empowered to understand their role in policymaking in response to those crises. The STEP program teaches us as graduate students how to integrate our science with policy in a variety of ways.” 

For more information about the STEP program, visit this website.

Written by Felicia Spencer