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AAAS Workshop Brings Graduate Students to Congress to Advocate for Research Support

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Riccardo Cappa (far right) and other participants in the 2015 CASE workshop (right to left): Christine Sur, Menglu Yuan, Sam Wilson, Amanda Netburn, Kathy Myers, Robin Cummings. | AAAS/Kat Zambon

As a civil engineering graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, Riccardo Cappa studies how earthquakes might affect the 150 year-old levees on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a seismically-active area that sits below average sea level and houses the state's water delivery system hub. A single moderate earthquake in the region could cause multiple simultaneous breaches in the fragile levee system, according to Cappa, and the resulting flooding would inundate the majority of the delta, with catastrophic results for the unique salt/fresh water environment and the agribusinesses that operate there.

Cappa's research was funded by the National Science Foundation through the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), but, as he explained in a meeting with congressional staff on Capitol Hill, this program was shut down in September 2014. "I'm working to prevent tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005," Cappa said. "It's unfortunate that funding for this organization was not renewed."

"Students want to engage with policymakers but they frequently don't know where to start."

Erin Heath, AAAS

Cappa visited congressional staff members on 15 April as part of a program run by the AAAS Office of Government Relations. More than 70 students representing 43 institutions participated in the second annual CASE (Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering) workshop, 13-14 April in Washington, D.C. Seminars covered the structure and organization of Congress, the federal budget and appropriations process, and tools for effective science communication.

The CASE workshop was started in response to repeated requests from graduate students who were interested in science policy and advocacy, said Erin Heath, associate director of government relations at AAAS. Participants in last year's program have continued to pursue their interest in science policy by starting groups on campus and doing additional outreach to legislators.

"Students want to engage with policymakers but they frequently don't know where to start," Heath said. "By offering a crash course on science policy and communication, we're giving them the tools they need to do that."

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Erin Arms (right) and Kathy Myers of UCLA. Both Arms and Myers have written about their experiences at the workshop. | AAAS/Kat Zambon

Erin Arms, a graduate student in integrative genetics and genomics at University of California, Davis, enjoyed a seminar on the federal budget. "If we want more money for research, then I think it's important to understand where that money comes from," she said.

Arms also appreciated a session that covered the roles played by the Office of Management and Budget and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "I think it's really important for scientists who want to be engaged in public and science policy to know the different avenues for engagement," she said.

During her meeting with congressional staff, Arms advocated for additional funding specifically for graduate students. Grants frequently cover tuition and a small stipend for graduate students but because of tuition hikes, more faculty members are leaving graduate students out of their grant proposals, replacing them with post-doctoral students and technicians. "I think it's important that we're not only supporting the research but supporting the people doing the research," she said.

In a session on public engagement and science communication during the workshop, Sean Gallagher, AAAS senior government relations officer, spoke in about his experiences hearing from constituents representing various groups while he worked for members of Congress on Capitol Hill. As scientists, the students can serve as resources for Congressional staff members who have less experience with science and technology, Gallagher said.

Gallagher also encouraged the students to tell stories about their research to the Congressional staff members that they meet. "You're putting a human face on your research and that research is really important," he said. "It's important to tell your story and put a direct value on what you do."

Cappa was one of several University of California students who spoke during a meeting with Congressional staff about federal budget cuts affecting programs funded by the NSF, NIH, and Department of Energy. Robin Cumming, a graduate student in biomedical engineering at the University of California, Davis, had been working in a lab that identified a potential drug to diagnose pancreatic cancer but grant funding for graduate students and trainees was cut when they were about to start clinical trials.

"Pancreatic cancer is a very fast-moving cancer," Cumming said. "If we can't get anything into the clinic, we won't get any cures."

After visiting Capitol Hill, Cumming said that participating in the workshop was a valuable experience. "The CASE workshop was absolutely incredible," she said. "It made me truly realize the importance of scientists in government, and fueled my passion for getting the word out to support science and engineering research at all levels." 

Author

Kat Zambon

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