Source: Creative Commons
Have you ever yearned to change the world with your science but despaired of actually doing it? SciCommers and others received some valuable tips about how to actually make a difference Tuesday from Tom Zimnicki. As a program director of the Michigan Environmental Council for ground water, surface water and agriculture, Tom works to balance an innovative, pragmatic policy agenda that encourages environmentally sustainable agriculture and water conservation across Michigan. MSU SciComm President Chelsie Boodoo and Vanessa Garcia Polanco, MSU SciComm’s Science Policy Chair, moderated.
Tom has an interesting personal and professional story. A reluctant and accidental environmental advocate, he started out wanting to go to med school, realized he didn’t want to study for the MCAT, and wound up studying environmental affairs at Indiana University where he graduated in 2014 with a Masters in Environmental Science and a Master’s in Public Affairs. Wanting, at first, to get involved with sustainable agriculture after a med school-based trip to Nicaragua, he returned home, seeing for the first time that the majority of cases he saw were caused primarily by lack of proper nutrition. That led to an interest in nutrition, sustainability, toxicology and risk assessment. A series of internships focused on environmental site cleanups and environmental remediation work, which led to working for a private consulting firm where he did a lot of watershed assessments and water quality trading programs, setting up water quality management programs for state and local governments as well as overseas. From there it was a natural move to the Michigan Environmental Council, a nonprofit umbrella group that coordinates environmental issues for 65 state organizations and acts as their advocate on environmental issues. A big part of Tom’s job is to stay in touch with lawmakers and educate them about environmental issues. He’s especially involved with agricultural and water issues but touches on many other topics including energy, infrastructure, environmental justice, food access and natural resource management. Environmental advocacy has so many angles, Tom says, so it’s natural that doing the work of it takes many skills beyond the environmental sciences including lawyers and social scientists.
His own work requires Tom to blend knowledge of both the scientific and the policy aspects of environmental issues. Perhaps surprisingly, except when important bills come up, he spends a lot more time with state agencies than he does with elected legislators. One of his biggest tasks in 2019 was fighting a bill that would have deregulated half a million acres of wetlands along with protection over a couple of thousand lakes. How do you fight a bill like that, which would have had environmental and recreational consequences if it had become law? Not with propaganda, Tom says, but by marshalling facts about the intrinsic environmental value of wetlands and using his time at the Capitol to learn as well as to teach. Facts are harder for public officials to refute and speak louder than anything that sounds like pure rhetoric. A lot of environmental advocacy brings the Council into conflict with the state’s agriculture industry along with its associated energy consumption. Tom didn’t grow up on a farm himself so he can’t always appeal to agribusiness on the basis of a common background. His approach isn’t to criticize a whole industry as intrinsically anti-environmental, but take things on a case-by-case basis. “What you're proposing from a policy standpoint or a program design standpoint--does that make sense from a scientific basis?” he asks. “What I have found is that that has helped facilitate conversations and helps, I think, garner some more acceptance within those circles.” “What has been the hardest lesson you learned in this role so far?” asked Vanessa Garcia Polanco, MSU Sci Comm’s Science Policy Chair. “But also one that you expected to happen?” “I kind of knew going into this that people aren't always persuaded by numbers and facts,” Tom said. “But it's particularly jarring when you’re talking to elected officials who blatantly disregard what I believe to be fairly settled information.” An example? Tom tells the story of a meeting with a nameless State Senator. “We gave him this list of priorities for M. E. C. over the coming year. And they're the typical things. Then at the end of the document, under climate change, there was a bullet point that basically just said like, combat climate change and who's going through it? And you kinda like saw his eyes stop at that. And he put down a piece of paper and like, dead serious, looked at me and said, ‘So how exactly do you fight God?’” Tom found this jarring; it wasn’t an argument he was prepared for. “That kind of took me back. I was not prepared to have that kind of conversation. How much do you dig into this versus how much do you kind of just like, let this go?” Still, it was a valuable lesson. You have to go into every situation like a blank slate, he says. Be prepared for any argument they might hand you and be ready to build your arguments from there. What advice did Tom have for MSU science students fighting for their own research or environmental priorities? Focus on translating the fine points of your research into something busy policymakers can digest, he recommends. Policymakers are always budget and numbers minded. Because they answer to voters and taxpayers, they’re always attuned to the real-world impacts of research. “I have found that that becomes a pretty powerful motivator,” he says. “If you can link what you are advocating for to increased revenue, new jobs, new development opportunities for the stage or for the region, that certainly becomes intriguing for a lot of the people that we deal with.” “What recommendations do you have for us young scientists and scholars and the students that want to get more involved with science and policy?” Vanessa wanted to know. “Don’t be so sure about where you're going to end up from a job standpoint,” Tom said. “Don't be so sure that you only have one track to deploy your knowledge and research. I did not anticipate getting into the political world at all, honestly. If I could go back, I think I would have wanted to dig more into the broader implications of some of the research and some of the science that I was working on. It's easy to look at science and research in a vacuum. Thinking about that work in a broader space, I think, would have helped that transition for me to different roles.” Tayler Ulbrich, a student at the Kellogg Biological Station, wanted advice on how to communicate complicated science in a less complicated way. “Sometimes I feel uncomfortable giving a straight and strong, ‘Yes, we are confident that this is exactly what's going to happen,.’” She said. “As a scientist, we know that things are more nuanced than that, but you can't necessarily give a super-nuanced answer because then people aren’t gonna think that you know what you're talking about. How do you balance coming off as confident that this is what the science is showing, but also that science is always changing and things are really context dependent?” “Good question,” Tom said. “I apologize, you might think this is my answer to everything. But it depends on the audience. So if you were meeting legislator or pretty much any staffer, you could probably get away with high level, broa