During spring break, 18 MIT graduate students traveled to Washington, D.C., to impress upon our nation’s lawmakers the importance of federal science funding. The students from MIT’s Science Policy Initiative (SPI) met with 36 representatives from 13 states as part of the 18th annual Science-Engineering-Technology Congressional Visits Day (CVD). Their goal was to tell their stories in an effort to address the issue of decreasing dollars for federal research.
SPI is a student organization that works to educate scientists and engineers about the policymaking process and to explore how science and engineering can inform policy. The group is a longtime participant in Congressional Visits Day, which is sponsored by 33 academic societies, universities, and trade associations, including MIT, that together represent more than 1 million researchers and professionals.
Having gone for the eighth consecutive year and representing the largest delegation from a single organization, MIT’s young researchers aimed to build new relationships and leave a lasting impression on the politicians they met. To achieve this, they offered their expertise on the effects of sustained — and interrupted — science funding. “As researchers working at the bench, we have a unique perspective that stakeholders and policymakers may never otherwise interact with, and vice versa,” says Andrew Warren, a PhD student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.
The graduate students — two of whom hail from countries outside the United States — also pointed out how much international students contribute to the research done in the U.S. “According to researchers at the World Bank, out of 100 patent applications in the U.S., 63 are contributed by international PhDs,” says Geoffrey Supran, a doctoral student in materials science who put together most of the facts for the delegation.
According to the students, some lawmakers were more receptive to their case than others, but everyone was impressed with the respect they received. The students received professional training prior to their meetings from Bill Bonvillian, director of the MIT Washington Office, and from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The politicians also seemed to value the opportunity to speak with young people who were at once current recipients of federal research dollars; future innovators and contributors to the economy; and, in many cases, direct constituents. “That was really one of the more inspiring meetings I’ve had recently.” says David Gillers, Counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. “I walked out of there knowing the world is headed in the right direction, given all of [the] groups’ research projects.”
The Congressional Visits Day addresses a critical need. Since passage of a stimulus package in 2009, federal research and development funding has sunk to its lowest levels in decades. The 2013 Ryan Murray Budget Bill has helped to stave off the worst impacts of sequestration for fiscal year 2014-2015, but the research community now faces serious risks of damaging funding cuts in fiscal year 2016. The SPI-organized delegation asked Congress to support legislation similar to the Murray Bill for the years ahead.
Opportunities for interaction with leaders in Washington, D.C., exist throughout the year. As of 2012, MIT graduate students even have the ability to earn a certificate in Science, Technology and Policy through structured coursework. Further information on Congressional Visits Day and other activities and events relevant to science and technology policy and innovation can be found at the website of MIT’s Science Policy Initiative.