First Person

Catalyzing advocacy in science and engineering

Federal funding is indispensable for conducting cutting-edge research at Emory. In fiscal year 2018, Emory researchers received over $440 million in federal research awards, with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) accounting for over 80% of the federal funds awarded. Although Emory has consistently received substantial federal awards, recent budget proposals from the White House suggest that the current administration is reluctant to bestow such awards to research institutions at the same level in the future. On March 11, the current administration released a budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year with deep cuts to most agencies that primarily fund basic research. While Congress is anticipated to reject such drastic cuts, a sense of widespread uncertainty persists with regards to the state of basic science funding. If enacted, these cuts will not only stunt the rate of the nation’s scientific growth, but also will likely put the jobs of thousands of graduate students and post-doctoral trainees at risk.

If enacted, these cuts will not only stunt the rate of the nation’s scientific growth, but also will likely put the jobs of thousands of graduate students and post-doctoral trainees at risk.

Gokul Raghunath

So, what can the students and trainees do, to push back against such cuts? One answer to that question is to get involved in science policy and advocacy. Along with fellow Emory graduate student Alynda (“Lyndie”) Wood (Neuroscience), I spent March 24-27 in Washington, D.C. as a participant in a workshop put on by the American Association for Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) learning how to do just that.

What is CASE? 

The Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) Workshop is a three-day program designed to introduce early-career researchers in STEM disciplines to science policy and advocacy. The workshop featured presentations and talks delivered by leaders in science policy and advocacy, including AAAS CEO Rush Holt (a former U.S. Representative and a physicist by training), National Science and Technology Council Executive Director Chloe Kontos, and many more.

AAAS CEO and former Representative (District 12-NJ) Rush Holt delivering the welcome speech. Picture courtesy @AAAS_GR on Twitter.

The rest of the program was comprised of interactive sessions with panelists including majority and minority staffers from the House Science Space and Technology Committee, representatives from the NIH, NSF, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program Director Matt Hourihan who provided a crash course in understanding federal appropriations.

What topics were discussed? 

The discussion was spread across a wide array of topics with detailed presentations on the federal appropriations process, how science and policy mutually influence each other, and how to effectively communicate with lawmakers about basic scientific research. In one exercise, attendees had the opportunity to experience the appropriations process by participating in a mock-debate in which individuals were asked to advocate for the issues they cared about in response to an extremely restrictive budget proposal. The program also involved an interactive session helmed by Judy Schneider, a specialist on congressional structure, who brought provocative conversational style to teaching about the complex nature of politics underlying major funding decisions.

How did the participants make use of the training they received?
Lyndie Wood (neuroscience) with Gokul Raghunath (chemistry) in front of Longworth House Office Building in Capitol Hill.

On the final day of the workshop, we had the opportunity to visit Capitol Hill to directly interact with the legislative aides of four U.S. Representatives from Georgia (Rep. Woodall, Rep. Ferguson, Rep. Graves and Rep. Carter). In these meetings, we discussed our own research and graduate school experience, placing an emphasis on the opportunities provided to us by organizations like NIH and NSF that predominantly support fundamental research. We also discussed economic benefits that federal research funding brings to the Georgia economy, and asked about how scientists can help lawmakers make a better case in support of federal research funding to the general public.

Most staffers we met with were both highly informed and enthusiastic about federal funding of fundamental science research. However, we observed that the staff of representatives from more rural parts of the state, while expressing a general support for the NIH, knew very little about other federal agencies that fund scientific research and the specificity of their mission and goals.

How was the experience overall?

The workshop provided us with a great introduction to the inner workings of Congress. Exercises involving the appropriations process introduced us to the challenges faced by policy makers on a day to day basis. We felt that our meetings with the congressional staffers were extremely positive and productive. Apart from providing a platform for highly informative content, the workshop also enabled invaluable networking opportunities with a diverse student body representing over 70 institutions across the country.

Lyndie and I both would highly encourage our fellow graduate students at Emory to attend the CASE workshop in the future.

Gokul Raghunath
Would you encourage graduate students to attend the workshop in the future?

Yes! Lyndie and I both would highly encourage our fellow graduate students at Emory to attend the CASE workshop in the future. Emory University sponsors two students in the STEM disciplines to attend the workshop every year. Students can also apply directly through AAAS. (Note: the AAAS application deadline may be earlier than Emory’s.) There are no citizenship requirements to attend the workshop.

2019 CASE cohort. Over 170 students representing over 70 institutions attended the workshop. Picture courtesy @AAAS_GR on Twitter.
How can I get involved in science policy outside of the workshop?

There are a number of ways to get involved through organizations such as National Science Policy Network, Union of Concerned Scientists, March for Science, etc. Civic engagement, community outreach, and letter writing campaigns to local policy makers can make a huge difference as well. Students can also join the Emory Science Advocacy Network, a student group that hosts speakers and organizes advocacy campaigns on campus.

Can I pursue science policy as a career option?

Absolutely. AAAS offers several long-term fellowships, including but not restricted to the AAAS Mass Media Fellowships, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships, Community Engagement Fellows, etc. Organizations such as the American Chemical Society, Biophysical Society, The Optical Society, American Society for Microbiology, etc. offer several fellowship opportunities to work closely with congressional staff. The National Academies offer Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy fellowships, which are open to international students as well.

Gokul Raghunath is a 6th year graduate student in the Dyer Lab at Emory who studies the biophysics of membrane bending driven by protein association. Gokul can be reached at gokul [dot] raghunath [at] emory [dot] edu

Alynda (“Lyndie”) Wood is an NSF-funded 5th year graduate student in the Emory Neuroscience Program who studies the neurobiological basis of skill learning. Lyndie can be reached at alynda [dot] noel [dot] wood [at] emory [dot] edu (Twitter: @alyndanoel).

Feature image, “Capitol D.C.” courtesy of dvpfagan via Creative Commons. The feature image is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.