By Joan Conrow
Sarah Evanega, an imaginer who pioneered innovative approaches to science communication, today won the Mary Clutter Service in Science Public Service Award.
Evanega, the founding director of the Alliance for Science who now serves as lead of stakeholder engagements at Pairwise, has long been a tireless champion for embracing the role of advocacy in science and academia.
The award, conferred by the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), recognizes individuals who have advanced the organization’s mission through significant contributions to plant science, public policy leadership and the broader society.
In accepting the award at the ASPB conference in Portland, Evanega noted that some of the previous winners inspired her own career in plant science. She earned a PhD in plant biology from Cornell University but left the bench during graduate school to focus on science communication, exploring the controversy around genetically engineered crops in developing countries.
In the years since, Evanega has continued to champion the use of GM crops in developing nations and ensure that the tools of gene editing can be used by plant scientists to address climate change, global hunger and other pressing issues. She’s won numerous awards for creatively approaching the intersection of science and society, including the 2021 Borlaug CAST Communications Award.
She used her acceptance speech to urge scientists, academics and others to find their “advocacy purpose” and “amplify it to have impact on the biggest challenges of our time.”
“How many of you have heard that we should not advocate?” she asked the crowd. “I spent a long time in the university setting and heard this a lot. That advocacy was a bad word—something not to be done in academia.”
But Evanega sees things very differently, noting that advocacy ensures access — to life-saving childhood vaccines, gene therapy, women’s health care, improved seeds and more.
“It means standing up — singly and in solidarity — for policies that save lives and improve the planet,” she said. “Through advocacy our science has impact.”
Evanega, who has three young children, is especially passionate about ensuring that “the people who live on this fragile earth all have access to safe, nutritious food.”
“This has been a core driving theme throughout my career,” she said. “Access to safe, sustainable food drives my science advocacy purpose.”
She defined access as comprising three interrelated components: affordability, availability and awareness. “All three impact each other,” she said. “And all three factors impact access and determine who has and who has not.”
Pairwise, she said, is using new breeding technologies like CRISPR to make healthy nutritious foods more available to all consumers. The start-up’s first product is a super nutritious salad green due to hit supermarket shelves next year under the brand Conscious Foods.
But while laudable efforts are under way to make nutritious food more available and affordable, consumers must also be aware of them, Evanega said. Communications sit at the heart of awareness.
“The reality is, those of us who chose to pursue careers in plant biology may have some of the most important jobs out there,” she said. “We have a huge role to play in making meaningful change that will help nourish people and the planet.”
However, she noted, “if our science is to have impact, we must change our science paradigms. It won’t be enough to publish in peer reviewed journals. It won’t be enough to speak to the choir at conferences like this one, attended by the like-minded. We have to go out and meet people where they are.”
Evanega urged her colleagues “to exercise our plant science advocacy” locally, where they can often have the greatest impact, as well as at the national and global levels.
Though she offered a list of advocacy suggestions, ranging from running for office and penning an op-ed to mentoring youth and empowering the next generation of scientists, it all starts with communicating.
“Talk about science in your place of worship, at the gym, at your kids’ soccer games, with your Lyft driver on the way to the airport or when you are choosing perfectly ripe avocados at the supermarket,” she said. “Anywhere, anybody. Start the conversation!”
This story was first published in Alliance For Science