Over the past several years, the American scientific community has been threatened by cuts of billions of dollars to federal research and development funding. Despite requests from the presidency, science funding (decided by Congress) has remained relatively stable and even increased in some cases in 2020.
Dahlia Sokolov, who has been the Democratic Staff Director of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology for 11 years, was in the middle of that deal-making and helped pull off the new budget. Due to her 15-year track record of working for evidence-based science policy, she has been recognized as a 2019 AAAS Fellow.
“It never even occurred to me that I might be considered,” said Sokolov. “Since then, I have discovered that some of my earliest and most important mentors on the Congressional staff were also honored as AAAS Fellows. It is truly gratifying to be in a group with them and to be recognized in this way by my peers in the science and technology policy community.”
While her long history of working in legislation led to much of her nomination, Sokolov thinks the key roles she played in the America COMPETES Act, which invested in research and development in the U.S. to improve American competitiveness, made her stand out. First passed by George W. Bush in 2007 and then re-authorized by Barack Obama in 2010, those bills included billions of dollars of National Science Foundation (NSF) funding.
Scientists often agonize over NSF grant applications, which can make or break research projects. Since 1997, the applications have included two parts: intellectual merit essays and broader impact statements, in which scientists must make the case that their research will benefit society. For years, the ‘broader impact’ criterion “had little to no teeth and was treated as a check-the-box exercise,” Sokolov said.
For the 2010 COMPETES Act, Sokolov wrote language to strengthen the criterion to be more meaningful. Her work led to the creation of the National Alliance for Broader Impacts and has since encouraged scientists and educators across the country dedicated to broadening participation from underrepresented groups, disseminating results to larger communities and partnerships, and promoting teaching and learning. She calls it “one of the legislative efforts I’m most proud of.”
From 2011 to 2018, the Democrats were in the minority of the House, which meant that Sokolov’s subcommittee and staff had no say in the Committee’s agenda. For those years, her subcommittee focused on blocking certain policies rather than advancing new ones.
Last year, Sokolov’s team developed and passed initiatives addressing diversity and sexual harassment in STEM. Right now, she’s developing a national initiative on responsible development of artificial intelligence, continuing her years-long work on writing a bill to advance standards in forensic science, and organizing hearings on U.S. competitiveness in critical technologies, the cybersecurity workforce and preparations for next year’s budget.
“My office white board has a list of 25 bills at different stages in the process, a few of which made it into law this Congress,” Sokolov said. “So, I'm never bored, and I get to work on all these really cool topics that are constantly changing and I'm at the table helping to make decisions that affect the scientific enterprise. That is a tremendous opportunity and privilege.”
A schedule packed with meetings, hearings and negotiations wasn’t on Sokolov's mind back when she was working on her undergraduate degree in engineering physics from University of California, Berkeley.
“The science itself was still cool and inspiring to me, but at the same time, there was some part of me that said, ‘I can't imagine spending my career watching blips on an oscilloscope,’” Sokolov recalled. “When I applied for college, I didn’t really understand what engineering physics was, but I knew it was some way of marrying my love of physics with my desire to do something more on the applied side.”
Sokolov continued finding ways to apply physics with her NIH-funded work for her Ph.D. in bioengineering at the University of Washington, collaborating with biologists, urologists and clinicians at other institutions to investigate using shockwaves to break up kidney stones.
That love of collaboration and desire to make a difference led her to take a three-month break during the last year of her Ph.D. for a Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellowship with the National Academies of Science, Medicine and Engineering. There, she got “Potomac fever” and started thinking about a career in policy.
She sought opportunities in Washington and held a postdoc at NIH. After that, she became a Congressional Fellow sponsored by the American Institute of Physics, which she pivoted into a staff job with the House Committee on Science and Technology.
“Once I understood what policy meant, the more I thought ‘I can do that, I want to do that.’ And here I am,” Sokolov said.
Sokolov encourages AAAS Members to engage “at the level that makes the most sense for them,” and to remember that even if the political environment may feel anti-intellectual, members of Congress by and large support science, and that science research is often taxpayer-funded.
“It's a real privilege and opportunity to be here as a scientist helping to serve as a bridge between the scientific community and the policymakers,” Sokolov said. “I would certainly encourage scientists out there to think about where they can make their voices heard and contribute to the policy discussion, because nothing happens in isolation.”