1997-98 Congressional Fellow sponsored by the American Chemical Society
I place the blame squarely on National Public Radio (NPR). I entered graduate school determined to become a biochemistry professor. But every day in the lab I listened to reports of people struggling for their jobs, their health, or their way of life. And it started me wondering, “Why am I here doing this?” and “Why was everyone around me doing science and why did the federal government think that having it done was worth billions of taxpayer dollars a year?
The questions kept nagging me, and so I began to investigate the issue. I soon learned that there are many reasons why the government invests in science: Improvements in weaponry (one of the original drivers for science investment), medical advances, and new commercial technology are just a few of the more obvious and direct benefits society gets from science.
But the contributions of science are not always so straightforward. Science can provide information needed to create a more sensible policy, for example, to what degree developing children may have peculiar sensitivities that should be considered when writing pesticide regulations. And it can sometimes tell us what we may not want to hear, such as the possibility that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere just might be changing the climate of Earth, which could lead to all kinds of disruptions–economical, environmental, and otherwise.
Soon I discovered that I was intrigued by the complex relationship between science and society as I was by the complexities of biochemistry. One day a friend showed me an ad for the American Chemical Society’s (ACS’s) Congressional Science Fellowship in the back pages of Chemical and Engineering News. Spending a year on Capitol Hill in a U.S. Senator’s or Representative’s office would be ideal. I thought the fellowship was just what I was looking for. I applied and was pleasantly surprised (shocked is a better word) to be offered the fellowship by ACS.
I soon learned that working on Capitol Hill is not at all like working in the lab. Instead of using logical reasoning and experimentation to discover the nature of particular biochemical pathways, the Hill operates as a hugely complex system of scales that tip in response not to scientific data but rather to values held by society. Politicians cast their vote based on the values they and the constituents who elect them, hold. But values are not formed in a vacuum and scientific information can help mold them by revealing what is at stake, for example, by allowing acid rain to continue.
When my fellowship year was over, I was lucky enough to find a permanent position on the Hill. As a legislative assistant who handles energy and environmental issues, I feel I have the ideal spot where I can watch how science contributes to and challenges the decision-making process. Scientific information figures into a number of exciting debates here on the Hill. And sometimes, I can even hear about it the next day on NPR.