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CASE Workshop Immerses Students in Science Policy

2018 CASE Workshop
The 2018 CASE cohort gathers at AAAS headquarters. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

The fundamentals of science policy and advocacy can serve undergraduate and graduate students in meetings with their members of Congress on Capitol Hill and beyond, said speakers at the Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering workshop held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.

“This isn’t just about a single meeting up on the Hill. This is about being engaged throughout your entire career,” said Joanne Carney, director of AAAS’ Office of Government Relations, which organizes the workshop for students in science, math and engineering disciplines to learn about science policy and advocacy.

The CASE workshop, now in its fifth year, drew more than 190 undergraduate and graduate students representing 66 institutions to Washington, D.C., on March 18-21 for a three-and-a-half-day program that introduced them to the federal budget process, best practices for science communication and perspectives on the future of science and technology policy, capped with Capitol Hill meetings with members of Congress or their staff. The number of participants has tripled since the workshop’s 2014 launch, demonstrating a new level of interest in the role of science in public policy, Carney said.

“There is an infinite amount of work to be done in science policy,” said Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat representing Illinois’ 11th District, who spoke to workshop participants about his path from science to public service. Foster, the only current member of Congress who holds a Ph.D. in a physical science discipline, impressed upon students the importance of involvement in policy by people who can understand technology related to new scientific frontiers such as bioterrorism or artificial intelligence and communicate the facts – and the significance – to non-scientists.

Participants received guidance on how best to communicate with members of Congress and their staff, whether they are sharing their expertise in the service of policy or advocating on behalf of policies that support and fund science.

Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, shared with participants an effective approach for engaging lawmakers: telling meaningful stories about your research and rather than citing facts and figures explaining why it is important to you. This, along with understanding policymakers’ own motivations and values, he said, can build relationships beyond a single meeting.

“This town operates on relationships,” Smith said.

Linda Ho, a CASE participant and a fourth-year undergraduate student at UCLA studying molecular, cell and developmental biology, hoped to share with her representatives her own story as a scholar funded by the National Institutes of Health. “They’ve made so many things possible for me. It opened up many opportunities for training that I’m very grateful for,” Ho said.

Smith also reminded participants of an old adage: All politics is local.

“When letters came into our office,” Smith said, citing his previous experience working on Capitol Hill, “if they were not from our district, we would not answer them.” Policymakers are most interested in their own constituents, though Smith encouraged students who may have moved to a new district or state for their studies to keep in contact with their former representatives as well, especially if they still have local connections.

Jesús Alvelo, who participated in the first-ever CASE workshop in 2014, shared how his participation in CASE led to opportunities to work in the policy arena at a local level and beyond. Always interested in politics, Alvelo attended the workshop to see firsthand how the political process works and quickly felt comfortable in the world of politics. Afterward, he wrote articles and op-eds and made radio appearances in his native Puerto Rico and he was later contacted by Puerto Rico’s secretary of state seeking to meet with him about scientific exchange between Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Alvelo currently works at the National Science Foundation as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, a point of connection among several CASE workshop speakers.

Lyric Jorgenson, the deputy director for the Office of Science Policy at the National Institutes of Health, got her start in science policy as a AAAS S&T Policy Fellow. She encouraged students to surround themselves with people who don’t think like themselves and seek to understand their motivations.

Julia Jester, congressional liaison officer at the U.S. Geological Survey, was inspired to pursue science policy by a professor who was a AAAS policy fellow. Jester encouraged CASE participants to be invested in learning when engaged in policy and advocacy – not just sharing their expertise.

The importance of learning was repeatedly emphasized throughout the week. Always start by listening, and don’t forget to be patient, several panelists noted. After all, enacting policy can take a long time, according to Judy Schneider, who gave participants an abbreviated version of the course she gives to incoming members of Congress themselves on its structure and processes. Of the approximately 10,000 pieces of legislation introduced during each session of Congress, fewer than 200 become law, she said.  For instance, it took seven years for the Clean Air Act to first become the law in 1963, she said.

Regardless of where their careers take them, the CASE workshop can be a jumping-off point for a lifelong interest in science policy – knowledge that can serve them as citizens and voters, speakers said.

“I hope that the seed is planted,” said Foster.

[Associated image: Stephen Waldron/AAAS]