The Science Policy Group at Berkeley

We are a group of graduate students (and a few undergrads, post-docs, faculty, and staff!) at UC Berkeley in STEM fields who are excited about the intersection of science and policy, eager to learn and share our knowledge on how policy influences science and vice-versa. Our group explores how scientists can better communicate with policymakers, and we turn that into action while interfacing with local, state, and national elected representatives. We strive to increase conversation among students and the broader community on science policy issues, enable students to advocate for science and evidence-based policies, and provide science policy-related educational and professional development opportunities for students.

We meet twice a month on Tuesdays at 6:00, alternating between invited speakers (see our Events page) and internal meetings where we work on our projects. Sign up for our newsletter and come check us out!

New policy memos tackle facial recognition and EV charging

Image source: Pixabay

We’re excited to announce the release of two new policy memos that our group has been working on! You can find both, along with other publications from SPG members, on our eScholarship page.

Establishing Privacy Advisory Commissions for the Regulation of Facial Recognition Systems at the Municipal Level

Chris, Vetri, Morgan, Eric, Kim, and Regina tackle an issue that has taken on newfound importance amid recent calls to reform police departments: local regulation of facial recognition systems. They focus on the development of privacy advisory commissions and identify best practices to ensure their effectiveness, including: a clear mandate and responsibilities; cooperation, financial support, and regulatory authority with and over counterparts such as law enforcement; and representation from technology experts and community members. Read more here.

Expanding access to EV fast chargers in California’s low-income communities

Chris explores a growing challenge that local governments are facing – despite decreasing costs of electric vehicles, their widespread adoption is inhibited by poor charging infrastructure. He lays out several following policy recommendations to ensure that California’s marginalized communities have access to electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, centered on building codes, curbside charging stations, and an EV charger rebate program. Read more here.

Our Statement of Solidarity: Science Policy Group at Berkeley

To members of the Science Policy Group at Berkeley and others in the UC Berkeley community:

Like many of you, we are heartbroken by the tragedies of the last week, all of which have taken place against the background of a long-standing and continued crisis in our country: systemic police brutality and racial violence inflicted upon Black Americans. George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are the latest victims in a centuries-long assault against the Black community.

As early career scientists, we recognize that science is political. Chemistry is weaponized into tear gas. Machine learning and facial recognition software are leveraged to surveil and control communities. Advances in medical science are rooted in the unethical treatment of Black Americans, such as the use of HeLa cells and the Tuskegee syphilis study. To ignore the role that science plays in exacerbating racial inequity is an act of re-writing scientific history.

This reality is not new. We recognize SPG’s previous failure to explicitly connect our role as scientists with our responsibility to dismantle racist structures in our community. We acknowledge that we do not have all the answers and wish to use our privilege as researchers at UC Berkeley to address these systemic issues. As an organization, we commit to the following steps and encourage our peers to do likewise:

  • Work on and advocate for issues relating to policing and race at UC Berkeley and in the Berkeley community
  • Approach the question of whom science and science policy are meant to benefit and serve, and whom they have historically served and marginalized
  • Focus on issues of marginalization of under-represented groups, particularly Black Americans, in our advocacy efforts, and build networks with groups across campus led by graduate students of color

These efforts require all of SPG working together to succeed. So, we urge you to keep us accountable as we refocus SPG’s priorities, and we welcome the input of our community members, particularly those who have been disproportionately harmed by police brutality and racial violence. We encourage members to join the #urm-advocacy channel in our Slack as we continue to work on these issues as a group.

Please stay safe and take care of each other. We are here to support you in any way that we can.


Executive Board, Science Policy Group at Berkeley

Writing persuasive policy briefs

During a Science Policy Group meeting last fall, Deborah Moore (Western States Senior Campaign Manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists) led a workshop on science advocacy and communication. Goals of the meeting included:

  • learning the key elements of a good policy brief
  • highlighting considerations that go into the style, tone, and audience of writing a policy memo
  • practicing how to write a policy brief
  • pointing out resources for understanding the current policy situation

You may download a .PDF of her slides below.

The Big Give

Save the date for the Big Give! For twenty-four hours starting on Wednesday, March 11th at 9 PM PST, you can join the Science Policy Group’s fundraising blitz! Your donation will help us advocate for science funding, execute science communication workshops, and run more speaker events.

Donate here!

Donor Contests

Make your donation go further by donating strategically during a Big Give Contest. Each $10 donation counts as an entry to help us win even more funding!*

  • 9 AM – 11 AM, 3/12: Random non-alum donor ($3,000)
  • 10 AM – 12 PM, 3/12: Random alumni donor ($3,000)
  • 11 AM – 1 PM, 3/12: Random faculty/staff donor ($3,000)
  • 3 PM – 4 PM, 3/12: Random graduate student donor ($3,000)
  • 6 PM – 7 PM, 3/12: Random alumni donor ($3,000)

Social Media Contest
2 PM – 3 PM, 3/12: Random post on Twitter or Instagram that fills in the blank, “Thank you Cal for _____________________” (must include #CalBigGive and #CalSciPol)

*If you’re interested in donating >$10, consider making separate $10 donations to boost our chances of winning!

Much thanks,
The Science Policy Group at Berkeley Exec Team

AI & Facial Recognition: Policy for a new era of privacy

In the third event of our Science Meets Science series, we organized a panel discussing the scientific ethics of balancing public safety and personal privacy when using AI and facial recognition technology.

We explored questions such as:

  • San Francisco, Oakland, and other cities have banned police use of facial recognition software. What is the trade-off this creates between public safety and personal privacy?
  • What rights should be codified in law to protect our digital identities? Is there existing legislation that can be modified to address privacy issues in this technology-focused era?
  • What responsibility do developers of AI software, such as facial recognition, have to ensure that their products do no harm?

Our distinguished panelists were:

  • Brian Hofer, Chair and Executive Director of Secure Justice and Chair of Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission
  • Hany Farid, Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the School of Information at UC Berkeley

The conversation was moderated by Sarah Dean, a PhD student in EECS at UC Berkeley.

Listen to a recording of the full public discussion:

(Edit on 3/20/2020) You can also watch the full public discussion here:

Science Meets Science

After the Wildfires: Where should we live?

In the first event of our Science Meets Science series, we organized a panel discussing the policy issues surrounding housing, wildfires, and where we should be building.

We were joined by Scott Stephens, UC Berkeley Professor in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management; Laurie Johnson, Urban Planning Consultant; and Louise Comfort, Visiting Scholar at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS).

We explored questions such as:

  • Should we be building in wildfire-prone areas?
  • Should we rebuild cities like Paradise?
  • Should we be giving out money to retrofit for fire safety or encouraging people to move away?
  • Are policies over-focused on fuel management (forest thinning)?

Listen to a recording of the full public discussion:

Food of the Future: What will GMOs’ role be?

In our second forum of our Science Meets Science series, we focused on the scientific ethics of feeding a growing world and using GMOs to get there.

We were joined by Sarah Hake, Professor of Plant & Microbial Biology, UC Berkeley, and Center Director – USDA Plant Gene Expression Center; and David Zilberman, Robinson Chair and Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics, UC Berkeley.

We explored questions such as:

  • What are the advantages provided and threats posed by genetically engineering staple crops?
  • In what ways can gene modification influence crop yield, food digestibility, and producer profits? What could this mean for feeding the world under climate change?
  • Could modern GMOs (based on technologies like CRISPR) be more economically viable than their previous counterparts?

Check out the full recording of the public discussion!

Science Meets Science: We can, but should we?

The Science Policy Group at Berkeley was recently awarded a Civic Engagement Microgrant from Research!America under its Science Meets Science initiative, an effort to bridge social scientists with STEM scientists. With this microgrant, we will be launching a short series of events on scientific ethics motivated by the phrase, “We can, but should we?” Through these events, we will connect students and researchers with policymakers and local citizens to initiate cross-disciplinary discussion and eventual policy action. For our series, we have selected three topics in science ethics and will host multiple topic-specific events including (1) public forums between leading experts, (2) action-oriented policy roundtables focused on developing one-pagers and white papers, and (3) ethics-centered informational videos for the general public. Our topics and timeline are as follows:

  • November 2019 – After the Wildfires: Where should we live?
  • January 2020 – Don’t Have a Cow: Will fake meat save the planet?
  • March 2020 – Artificial Intelligence: It’s smart but is it just?

Our first public forum, “After the Wildfires: Where should we live?” is on Monday, November 25th, 5:30 PM – 7:30 PM PST in Anthony Hall. We will be joined by:

  • Professor Scott Stephens – Professor in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley
  • Dr. Laurie Johnson –  Urban Planning Consultant
  • Professor Louise Comfort – Professor of Public and Urban Affairs and Director of the Center for Disaster Management at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh; Visiting Scholar at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS)

More details about the project can be found here and on the #scimeetssci channel on our Slack.

Plastic waste reduction meta-review

Members of the Science Policy Group at Berkeley have assembled a meta-review on plastic waste reduction for the National Science Policy Network 2020 Election Initiative, an effort to promote science policy regarding critical issues in the US ahead of the 2020 election. The meta-review summarizes resources in four categories:

  1. Policy resources – We have compiled resources that provide guidance in crafting legislation that addresses plastic pollution.
  2. Existing and proposed legislation – We have identified relevant legislation at the state, national, and international levels.
  3. Data resources – We have compiled studies on plastic waste management, the economics of plastic recycling, and the effects of microplastics on human health and the environment.
  4. Stakeholders – We have found organizations that play an active role in shaping the agenda for plastic pollution reduction.

Alex Epstein, Julie Fornaciari, Emily Harari, Will Horner, Katie Latimer, Ananya Nandy, and Emma Vargo contributed to this effort.

Crowdfunding Success!

In April 2019, we crowdfunded over $2,400 for our science policy projects from nearly 40 donors. This was 160% of our original goal of $1500! This money will allow us to grow our projects, including advocacy trips to Sacramento, STEMVotes, various guest speakers we invite to campus, and similar initiatives. We’ve already begun utilizing these funds, and they have been a tremendous boon to SPG. While our crowdfunding page is no longer accepting donations, you can still check out descriptions of our projects there or donate directly to SPG through UC Berkeley here!

Actions for Lawmakers in the Wake of PG&E’s 2019 Bankruptcy

In response to the 2018 California wildfires and subsequent PG&E bankruptcy, Science Policy Group members Erin Sullivan​, Christopher Jackson​​, Daniel Broberg​​, Mark O’Dair​​, and Vetri Velan ​wrote a policy memo to California lawmakers. The document highlighted several key topics for those in Sacramento to consider as they decide how to weigh in on the proceedings. These include managing the future of renewable energy, energy access, and wildfire liability. They conclude that it is in the best interests of all Californians to establish a wildfire fund, coordinate energy purchases and distribution among new local energy providers, and scale up local energy storage capacity.

Read the full text of their memo here.