Broadening our impact: How scientists affect change on the Hill

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

Madeleine Y. Bee
Ph.D. Candidate in Food Science, fourth year
Cornell University

Seeing the sunrise over the Capitol building while driving down North Capitol Street was certainly not a typical Wednesday morning, for myself or a few other graduate students from Cornell University. Like hundreds of other graduate students from across the country, we’d traveled to Washington, DC for Advocacy Day: A day jam-packed with meetings that provided a unique opportunity for graduate and professional students from a variety of fields across the country to talk with staffers, policymakers, and, if they’re lucky, a senator or representative.

I signed up for Advocacy Day, not exactly knowing what I was getting myself into; I had spent all of my professional life in academia. I’ve written grant proposals and annual progress updates and presented my research in written, poster, and talk formats, but I’d never advocated for scientific funding. At first, it felt uncomfortable and awkward to present myself, my personal story – no data, no carefully developed figures, no PowerPoint presentation – and tell staffers and policymakers why higher budget caps were so critical for increasing the federal funds dedicated to scientific research, which would eventually provide a paycheck and resources to other graduate students just like me.

Our meetings on the Hill were straight and to the point: nearly everyone we spoke with was running both from and to other meetings. We introduced ourselves, with a brief description of our fields, programs, and research areas – a great exercise in science communication. Staffers handed out their business card as we discussed our planned points about raising budget caps, maintaining subsidized student loans, and increased federal funding, especially for graduate students funded by agencies like NSF, NIH, and USDA. We shook hands, took a photo with the office plaque, and power-walked to our next meeting. That was it: policy, affected to the best of our ability.

In addition to staffers, we also met with science policy fellows. The majority of these fellows are Ph.D.-holding scientists who’ve left industry or academia – some temporarily, some permanently – to spend a year or two in DC learning the policy-making process by working in a Congressional office or committee. It was inspiring hearing about their journeys through graduate school, scientific careers, and then how they shifted into policy. Some fellows received the fellowship straight out of grad school, others were professors or professional scientists on sabbatical, and still, others had worked in other government agencies before pivoting to policy. Each felt that while they were initially out of their element in the policy world, their scientific training had prepared them well to learn on the job.

Science policy fascinates me because it’s the ultimate application of science communication: impacting legislation and funding that directly correspond to research potential. Many of the fellows we spoke with on Advocacy Day had a few big projects they were working on, but also served as scientific liaisons in meetings. Policy fellows are often thrown into situations far from their area of expertise, relying on the critical thinking and problem-solving skills they developed from their scientific training.

By the end of the day, I knew for certain that science policy is what I want to pursue after graduate school. I expected science communication to be a critical component of science policy but wasn’t quite aware how impactful it could be: policymakers rely on us, scientists, to drive our point home to them clearly and succinctly. They have to make crucial decisions quickly and don’t have the time or know-how to parse through the primary literature. Science policy fellows are responsible for bridging this gap, but as graduate students, we can be useful too.

If science communication, policy, or working on the Hill intrigues you, I highly recommend the Advocacy Day experience! Apply for it and the AAAS CASE Workshop next year.

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