Graduate Students Dive Into Science Advocacy With New Workshop

Participants say they will use their new training to set up advocacy groups on their home campuses.
For two days in Washington, D.C., the 63 students in the CASE workshop got a crash course in science policy and advocacy. | Matthew P. Spangler

When last year's federal budget sequestration measures went into effect, many graduate students saw critical research dollars dwindle or disappear. They were among the most vocal and energetic participants in grassroots efforts to advocate for restored funding.

A new workshop co-organized by AAAS is helping graduate students with no previous experience in science policy to channel this energy, by learning more about the workings of the federal government and ways to advocate for research support.

The Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop on 31 March-1 April introduced 63 students to the basics of the federal budget process. Workshop leaders developed hands-on activities, presented the students with the realities of congressional structure and processes, brought in Capitol Hill staffers to discuss how R&D policy is made, and offered lessons in communicating with Congress and the importance of advocacy.

Several of the students put their newfound knowledge to immediate use with a visit to their state's congressional offices. And, many of those who attended the workshops said they returned to their campuses with a sense of optimism about their ability to shape science policy, even at this early stage in their careers.

It was the energy of these students in efforts like MIT's Stand With Science and AAAS' Speak Up For Science that inspired AAAS to join with other institutions to create the CASE workshops, said Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations. "While there are opportunities for this type of engagement for people who have finished their Ph.D.s, such as the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, there are not as many opportunities like this for graduate students."

The workshop was designed to "empower students, and give them ways to stay engaged" in research advocacy, said co-organizer Abby Benson, the assistant vice president of research and federal relations at University of Colorado, Boulder "But there are also many scientists and engineers who may not end up staying in academia," she added, "and this gives them a chance to see some of the possible careers in science policy that are out there."

Laura Shum, a first-year graduate student at the University of Rochester Medical Center, was one participant who sees some sort of science policy work in her future. She said the workshops provided her with a better sense of the participants involved in federal R&D policy and advocacy, especially after a visit to Rep. Louise Slaughter's (D-NY) office.

Led by AAAS Budget & Policy Director Matt Hourihan, CASE students broke into small groups to negotiate a mock federal appropriations bill. | AAAS/ Carla Schaffer

"It was this broad reminder that this unwieldy beast that is the government is made up of individual people who have to make individual decisions about a lot of things," Shum said. Legislators and their staff "have to be specialists in all these things that they have no training in. So now part of me feels like it's my duty as a constituent to inform the people I vote for about the issues that are important to me."

Emily Pugach, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, applied for the workshop "to get more of a practical framework for how science policy works in Washington D.C., and how it works for researchers in my field," she said. "I came back with a good sense of how things work and how I can be an advocate for my own science and university."

Pugach and fellow UC Boulder graduate student Christopher Schaefbauer visited the offices of Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), as well as Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO). They came prepared with specific examples of how federal R&D funding supports university research and training, such as a National Institutes of Health graduate student training grant that was not renewed this year at their university.

"Having graduate students tell their stories about the uncertainties they face or about how important federal funding of their research has been to their careers to date and where they want to take the discoveries they're working on...those are very compelling stories," Benson said. "It's always good to have students come speak to Congress because they represent the future."

Carney said feedback from CASE participants has been extremely positive and enthusiastic, and the organizing groups hope to make the workshop an annual event. "We want even more students to take this knowledge back on campus and use their collective creativity to develop their own mechanisms for becoming engaged and interacting with others," she said.

This year's participants have already started active networks on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter at #makingourcase, Shum said, and there are plans to set up a regular video chat among the participants to share ideas on how to promote science policy on campus.

Pugach said the CASE students will be sharing not just the tools of advocacy learned in the workshop, but also a sense of optimism. "There's this feeling that you're kind of helpless...as far as what happens in Washington, D.C., and I think that's kind of a myth. We want to show everyone here on campus that there are things you can do."

The CASE workshops were organized by AAAS, , the American Institute of Physics, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Research!America and the University of Colorado Boulder. In all, 32 universities and societies sponsored students to attend the inaugural workshop.