Out of the Lab and onto the Hill - #MakingtheCASE with AAAS

Out of the Lab and onto the Hill - #MakingtheCASE with AAAS

By Irene Cheng

Irene Cheng, a NGP student in the Deppmann Lab, was selected to attend the AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop, sponsored by UVA’s Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs.

The AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop sought to develop a community of young scientists and engineers equipped with the skills to advocate for their research and scientific field and to breach the cultural schism between scientists and politicians. Science is fundamentally intertwined with government policy. Scientific research in the United States principally relies on federal funding, and scientific findings have massive potential to inform policy decisions. However, historically a lack of communication between scientists and policymakers has prevented a truly collaborative relationship. The CASE workshop provided young scientists, like myself, with the skills and resources to engage with government officials and combat the highly partisan nature of politics.

CASE workshop attendees quickly appreciated that lawmakers have the delicate task of defining legislation while taking a multitude of economic, ethical, budgetary, public opinion, and scientific factors into consideration. The majority of congress recognizes the investment and job-developing potential in science, however scientists must still advocate to be “at the table” for all budgetary and policy discussions. The need for science advocates is more apparent than ever. In the past two years, the President proposed steep budgetary cuts to federally-funded research and development agencies, including the National Institute of Health, Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency (1). To train effective science advocates, this workshop provided a “Guide to Government for Dummies (AKA Scientists)”-esque approach to congress. Our foundational knowledge was built through a number of talks, from moving speeches from the single PhD physical scientist in congress, Rep. Bill Foster, to a hilariously candid lecture on the “secrets of congress” by Judy Schneider, Specialist on the Congress (2).

The workshop also equipped attendees with a collection of tools and skills for effective advocacy, such as a succinct and engaging elevator pitch, statistics on state-specific R&D funding, and a growing vocabulary of government terminology. We left the workshop buzzing with ideas for local science advocacy and the resources to execute these projects. The timing of the workshop was particularly fortuitous: Matt Hourihan, Director of the Research and Development Budget and Policy Program at AAAS, taught the attendees about the federal budget just days before the Fiscal Year 2018 budget was passed (1). This timely occurrence effectively demonstrated how scientists cannot be mere passive recipients of federal funds and we must cultivate relationships with and educate our congressional representatives.

Unfortunately, due to a weather-related government closing, I was unable to attend the Capitol Hill visits with UVA and the CASE workshop. However, advisors and peers at the CASE workshop emphasized that “politics is local”. Consistent communication between elected officials and constituents such as myself will be more impactful than a single Capitol Hill meeting. In lieu of in-person visits, I have continued to develop communications with our congressional representatives Rep. Thomas Garrett, Sen. Tim Kaine, and Sen. Mark Warner, and their staffers via email and phone. I have also invited these representatives and their staffers to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia to experience the lively research environment themselves.

            The CASE workshop developed a network of career government officials, science advocates, non-profit members, politicians, and conscientious students with a shared interest in empowering scientists and sharing knowledge. This meeting of the minds inspired new advocacy opportunities, introduced me to a network of motivated peers and models of success, educated me on burgeoning policy issues, and finally convinced me of the political power of Twitter. Collectively, the CASE workshop provided the training, community, and support for young scientists to enter into the policy realm and advocate. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity, and excited to spread the political fervor and hone my skills in Charlottesville.

  1. https://www.aaas.org/news/omnibus-would-provide-largest-research-increase-nearly-decade
  2. https://www.aaas.org/page/case-agenda