Milwaukee Area Science Advocates Hope to Influence Public Policy

Jun 15, 2017

A number of local citizens are concerned that scientific research is factoring less and less into policymaking. So, they formed Milwaukee Area Science Advocates, or MASA, to "champion science as a pillar of freedom and prosperity."

The idea to advocate for evidence-based policy decisions started brewing last winter, when a handful of people organized a March for Science in Milwaukee. It went well. On Earth Day, more than 3,000 people flocked to downtown.

Jason Kern is one of the volunteers who helped bring MASA to life.
Credit Sam Kirchoff

“We really aim to be a group of individuals that can turn out to things like town halls and public meetings to help get the voice of science heard in our communities and in our legislation,” Jason Kern says. He's  is one of MASA's volunteers.

Kern was encouraged last Sunday when 150 folks, many with young children in tow, showed up for the first public science meeting - despite uncomfortably hot temperatures.

While adults listened to experts, kids explored.
Credit Sam Kirchoff

Tantalizing smells floated from food trucks on Bruce Street in Walker's Point. Inside, live music filled the air and kids gravitated to activities including the chance to hold a live creepy crawler.

Kern would like to think SCIENCE attracted them. His own concern about climate change could not be more personal.

“I’ve got an eight month old at home and I know our world is heading in a direction that I don’t want to leave him in. And so I’m working really hard with this organization to make a difference for his future,” he says.

The panel (left to right) Zilber School of Public Health's Dr. Thalia Williams, Milwaukee Public Museum's Hillary Olson, Compost Crusader Melissa Tashjian and UWM phenoclimatologist Mark Schwartz.
Credit Sam Kirchoff

If there was any doubt climate change is real, UWM scientist Mark Schwartz told attendees he was there to dispel it. “The IPCC has said that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal – that’s the closest we get to saying there’s no doubt,” he says.

The IPCC stands for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Schwartz says it’s a highly-respected international organization formed back in 1988 to review the latest research.

Schwartz is a phenoclimatologist who co-founded the USA National Phenology Network. He watches for how plants and climate interact, and says gardeners may be noticing what he has.

“From the '50s until the early 2000s, the growing season has gotten about a week earlier, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to plant earlier because there’s also problems with frost….I can use that as a jumping off point to you can be the person observing as well and you can see the evidence for yourself,” Schwartz says.

Hillary Olson heads community engagement at the Milwaukee Public Museum and says, “When we talk about education, we have to talk about mitigation, what are we going to do about climate change.”

She says the Milwaukee Public Museum, as a trusted institution, can help people come to terms with climate change. For example, the museum has installed a wall of solar panels and is about to construct an intricate garden to manage storm water.

“We’re not pressing the ‘Oh my god, climate change is going to get you’, trying to make an upper message, like, this is what you can do about it. Rather than just preaching to the choir, getting out into your community is really important,” Olson says.

Melissa Tashjian is already out in the community. She’s a composting expert who founded Compost Crusader. As the only non-scientist on the MASA panel, Tashjian focuses on how waste impacts the environment.

“One million tons of food we landfilled as the state of Wisconsin last year. That is the weight of three-and-a-half Empire State Buildings. I’m always going back to myself and what I can do and I’m always going back to what I can control.” She adds, “My own personal decision of where I put this paper napkin or this soda can really does add up and make a difference."

Jolissa Pierlussi with her aunt left and grandma right.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Young attendee Jolissa Pierlussi didn’t listen to Tashjian and the other panelists; instead the seven year old was captivated by the robot she got to build.

But she did have something to say about spring’s inaugural March for Science. Her grandma took her. “I liked it a lot. Even though there was a lot of talk. I liked marching. It was spectacular. I don’t know what to say else, but I know I just really liked it,” Pierlussi says.

Catherine Pierluissi says she’s concerned about the world her granddaughter will inherit. “I explained to her that you can’t just march and expect change. You have to see how to follow through on it, so that’s why we’re here today and we did a lot of a kids activities,” she says.

As for what's next for MASA, member Jason Kern says two of the early concerns that have emerged are the importance of the health of the Great Lakes and coming up with solutions to replace lead water pipes stand out; however, the group's exact next step are to be determined.

“We all are volunteer-based, volunteer-lead. We all have day jobs, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t accomplish a lot," he says. "We all work together as a group to figure out what we are going to work on.”

Right now, volunteer recruitment is high on the list. “They give us their perspective of what they want to focus on most. And when they’re energized about it, we know that’s where the action is going to come in, so we focus on what our volunteers are wanting to focus on," Kern explains.