How Scientists Can Change the System from the Inside Out & The Bottom Up

It was the day of the 2017 inauguration. I sat on my patio staring at the trees avoiding the TV and social media. I was still feeling numb. 

You see, I had poured my heart and soul into an election campaign with Clean Air Moms Action. A national organization of parents fighting for a safer climate, cleaner air and protection from hazardous chemicals we encounter in our daily lives. We had worked in multiple states, including North Carolina, trying to help candidates who supporter children’s health get elected to office. I had literally lived every second of the 2016 election. 

On election night, like many of you, I was preparing to celebrate with some of the amazing women who had spent weeks tirelessly knocking on doors for the campaign. But as the hours passed, a new reality washed over us… 

In the months following the election, I watched as marches popped up across the country. I remember feeling grateful there were people who weren’t so burned out like me, stepping up to lead and organize. 

On the day of the inauguration, like many people across the country, I was still grieving. Then the phone rang… It was my friend Susannah on the other end, full of hope and love asking me if I wanted to meet up at the women’s march in our city the next day. I told her, “To be honest, I don’t feel like going.”  “WHAT!” she yelled, “you HAVE to go! It will be good for you. We will pick you up. Frank is driving and dropping us off. We will have mimosas and everything you need to make a sign.”  Thank heavens for Susannah! I ended up going. Mimosa in one hand and sign in the other.  I was so blown away by the crowd in Raleigh. I felt like I had bathed in love, hope, and possibility. It was exactly what I needed! 

As the year went on I watched as more people, especially women, got involved for the first time. But by last summer I was having a hard time finding a place to give back that fit my “mompreneur” lifestyle.  I was in the middle of a difficult divorce and getting used to being a single mom.  Even with my roots in the women’s movement and a political/advocacy skill set, all the calls to take action just weren’t speaking to me. I didn’t have a lot of extra time on my hands and I most certainly was NOT ready to run for office. But I wanted to do more than send emails.

It was a normal work day for me when it hit me like a ton of bricks! I realized what I could do. Here I was in the middle of a client project, recruiting and coaching people to become volunteer appointees, yet I hadn’t put myself out there for a new appointment! My previous appointment to the NC Museum of Natural Sciences Advisory Board had ended a few months before. I jumped in and started going through my own process to find the perfect fit for my passion, skills, and “mompreneur” lifestyle.

Six months later I was thrilled to find out Governor Cooper appointed me as Chair to the NC Youth Advisory Board. The board oversees the work of the State Youth Councils which is where my public service career started, over 20 years ago, as a freshman in High School. It was, and continues to be, a full circle moment for me.

Would you like stop imagining a better way to make a difference and start creating ripples of change in your community? You hear all the time “there’s an app for that”… well whatever your passion, or scientific expertise, is there is most likely a local board or commission for that! 

Volunteering to serve as an appointee right in your backyard doesn’t cost you any money, helps build your professional resume, expands your network, PLUS you could begin to change how science is perceived in your community. You can help change the system from the inside out and the bottom up!  

Most Americans (and most advocacy issues) are not solely “red” or “blue” but instead what I like to call “purple lane” issues — with supporters from all walks of life and both sides of the political aisle. I believe no one person agrees with another person 100% on all public policy issues...there are just too many of them! But despite all these differences, most people do seem to be able to agree that no one wants to drink dirty water, breathe dirty air, or see kids exposed to toxic chemicals with potentially serious medical complications.

During my tenure in the Governor's office was surprised to find my time spent trying to get the word out about vacancies on boards and commission. Often I had to track down highly qualified people who could fit, often, very narrow criteria to volunteer to apply for appointment to serve on a state level board or commission. 

Since starting my own consulting firm organizations have hired me to help them find qualified folks who could apply for appointment on the local and state level. Over the past 8 years I have been doing this work it still amazes me how many people with PhD’s, or multiple degree professionals, do not know that their scientific expertise, or specific skill set, is needed in their own local or state government.

In most scientific fields there are numerous local or state boards/commissions making decisions on issues most scientists are spending their day researching on a macro level. There often seems to be a disconnect between science and academia communities with opportunities to serve locally. 

If we want government officials and politicians to take science seriously, I believe, we must change the system from the inside out and bottom up by getting scientists appointed to local as well as state boards and commissions. You see this can be a place where the pipeline of candidates for higher office begins. You gain experience in how government runs, you build your network, and some will be asked--or decide themselves--to run for higher office. 

I know for many scientists I coached over the years there is a concern for trying to remain neutral or unbiased. They often worry about if they can get involved in government or politics without a negative impact on their work. But I always remind them that a lot of boards and commissions have designated seats to be filled by a person who can meet specific criteria based in scientific area of research or a skill set you gain by being a scientist. Government decision makers have seen the value of scientists over the years so much so that specific roles have been carved out in numerous boards and commissions. 

It is also worth remembering there is a long proud tradition of scientists serving our country through public service. Most notably Vannevar Bush who was instrumental in getting Congress to pass legislation to create the National Science Foundation (NSF). He was an American engineer, inventor and science administrator, who during World War II headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. He had very long and very notable career in public service. 

So I am here as proof that if a girl from rural Appalachia with no money, or political connections, could grow up and become a 3 time political appointee, just maybe so can you! 



Veronica Butcher is a super mom for Moms Clean Air Force, a three-time political appointee, experienced coach, and consultant with over 18 years of experience working on the national and state level. She has worked on numerous public policy initiatives to protect children’s health, end sexual assault, protect the environment, achieve equality for women, and promote clean renewable energy.

Prior to starting her consulting firm Harmonizing Strategies, Veronica was appointed to serve as Policy Advisor on Energy & Environment to Governor Bev Perdue. Most recently she was honored to be appointed by the Governor to serve as Chair of the North Carolina Youth Advisory Council which advises and supports the work of the NC State Youth Council as well as the 23 charted Councils across the state. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Sound Rivers as well as their Advocacy committee. She is a member of Politica, NC Women United, Lillian’s List NC, and the NC League of Women Voters. Veronica is a Leadership Triangle Goodmon Fellow and has previously served as a Governor’s appointee to the Advisory Commission for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.