Anne Q. Hoy, 26 Apr 2019
Chris Bolden, a Ph.D. candidate researching drug addiction, was thrilled with the outcome of two Arkansas congressional delegation staff meetings as part of an American Association for the Advancement of Science workshop on the role of science in public policy-making.
The capstone meeting with a staffer for Rep. French Hill (R–AR) resulted in an invite to serve on an Arkansas regional advisory board on the state’s methamphetamine epidemic, a focus of Bolden’s research. At a later meeting with aides to Sen. Tom Cotton (R–AR), Bolden was asked to provide a tour of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences lab where he conducts research. “I said, ‘Yes,’ of course.”
“Scientists in this generation want to increase our advocacy beyond the bench, and the best start is to get involved in policy,” said Bolden, one of 173 upper-class undergraduate and graduate science students who participated in intensive activities over 3 days as part of AAAS’s Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop, a crash course for science and public policy-making in the federal arena.
In recent years, the CASE workshop has experienced steady growth that aligns with increasing interest and engagement in policy-making and its impacts on the scientific enterprise among science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students.
Chloe McPherson, an associate in AAAS’s Office of Government Relations and an ambassador to CASE workshop participants, attributes growing workshop participation to the increasing formation of student-run, campus-based public policy and science organizations and outreach networks.
“More science policy groups are forming on campuses around the country, and a lot of graduate and Ph.D. students are looking for different ways to be involved and different options for what to do once they graduate,” said McPherson. “That has been a big factor.”
In 2018, CASE marked the greatest year-over-year jump in attendance when participation shot up to 193 students, the largest group to date, from 93 participants in 2017. In 2014, its inaugural year, CASE drew 64 students. Attendees of this year’s March workshop in Washington, D.C., also came from 28 different states across the country.
The number of scientific societies and universities that support student participation in the workshop also has climbed. Sixty-four institutions and organizations supported student attendance this year, up from 33 sponsors in the workshop’s inaugural year.
CASE has become a go-to workshop for scientists eager to understand science policy-making, particularly in the legislative and executive branches. Speakers addressed forces that transform legislatiion into laws, complex pressures behind annual federal budget proposals and spending decisions, and the operations of federal agencies.
Attendees attribute their interest to the need to expand their professional opportunities and gain knowledge of and participation in public policy-making that favorably impacts scientific research and contributes to public recognition of science’s value to public well-being and economic growth.
“Scientists are displaying a higher interest in learning about public policy because these policies affect our progress at and beyond the bench,” said Bolden. “Policies help influence which public health concerns funding invests in.”
The workshop’s Capitol Hill visits generated extensive enthusiasm among CASE attendees, reactions widely reflected on their Twitter posts with expressions of gratitude for being given platforms to advocate for science, engage in science policy matters, share stories about their research, and make cases for federal scientific support.
Jacy Hyde, a Ph.D. candidate who studies deforestation and energy development in the Brazilian Amazon and a founder of a University of Florida science policy student organization, said her meetings with the staff of Reps. Bill Posey (R–FL), Neal Dunn (R–FL), and Michael Waltz (R–FL) were an important step in building relationships with the state’s delegation, a goal of her university’s student policy organization.
“Both the workshop and my meetings reinforced the idea that simply bringing knowledge is not enough, but that you have to explain why someone should care about your work, and that enthusiasm, passion, and finding common ground really make a difference,” said Hyde.
The workshop also featured CASE alumni. Danielle DaCrema, a Ph.D. candidate in cell biology, now participating in a 12-week science and technology policy fellowship at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, said that the CASE workshop helped jumpstart her science policy work by providing resources and a network of contacts. The program’s federal budget training segments by Matt Hourihan were especially valuable, she said.
In sharing his story with attendees, Drew Story, another CASE alumnus who holds a Ph.D. in chemical and environmental engineering and now serves as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellow in the office of Sen. Chris Coons (D–DE), said he got his start by attending a AAAS annual meeting in 2015. Continuing involvement led him to the CASE workshop and now AAAS’s year-long public policy fellowship program. “Anytime I was involved in AAAS my network grew,” Story said.
The CASE workshop was founded in 2014 by the AAAS Office of Government Relations and five other scientific societies and higher-education institutions to answer increasing calls from students to better understand the bridge between science and policy-making and to gain training in science communications.
“Graduate students have taken an increasing interest in policy because, more than in the past, they want science and evidence used to inform and shape federal policies,” said Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, one of the program’s founding organizations.
Smith, a CASE speaker, underscored the need for effective advocacy from student scientists and praised the establishment on campuses of science policy groups and communications networks to enhance student participation in the public policy arena. Among topics they need to address, he said, are growing pressure on discretionary federal spending that is equivalent to potential cuts for key science agencies and programs, and legislative provisions that can block effective and efficient science.
A proposed tax provision in an early version of the 2018 Tax Reform Act, for instance, would have greatly increased educational costs for graduate students, said Smith. Instead, it served as a wake-up call for them to get more involved in public policy-making and led many to join or establish student-run policy groups. “What they learned from that experience was that if they mobilized, they could make a significant difference in the final outcome of major legislation,” he said.
Throughout the workshop, networking and coalition-building among participants were on full display, as was their energy, enthusiasm, and dedication. As if on cue, the 173 CASE participants quickly stood up at the beginning of each break and launched into conversations with those seated around them.
Staff from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, Senate and House lawmakers’ offices, congressional science committees and NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation shared executive and legislative branch perspectives.
In workshop remarks, Sam Love, an aide to Sen. Cory Gardner (R–CO), advised the community to help lawmakers stay informed about science. Samantha Warren, an aide to Rep. Bill Foster (D–IL), said of policy-making, “If you’re not part of the conversation… not there to be influencing it, it will happen to you, rather than with you, so you might as well get engaged.”
Teresa Davies, a National Science Foundation senior adviser, rallied CASE participants to leverage their value as the nation’s new generation of scientists. “You are critically important. I am hoping that when you get outreach opportunities, you take full advantage.”
Also addressing the workshop were Rush Holt, AAAS chief executive officer, and Shirley Malcom, AAAS senior adviser and director of SEA Change, a program designed to help academic institutions attract, retain, and advance underrepresented minority groups in science. “Laws let things happen. People have to make things happen,” Malcom said.
Showing CASE participants how to be a scientist and engaged in public policy, Holt traced his career as a Ph.D. physicist, college professor, federal employee, assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, 16-year member of New Jersey’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, and now AAAS’s chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Sciencefamily of journals.
Graduate students, Holt said, need to stop science from being ignored, seek out evidence, and connect with audiences by telling “the story of the evidence. Evidence-based thinking leads to more reliable knowledge and that reliable knowledge is what you should base your further research on and any public policy decision-making that you’re going to be doing.”
- Andrea Korte and Tiffany Lohwater contributed to this story.