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No future on the sidelines

Students are stepping up to Capitol Hill to speak out for science funding.
Team members of the Science Policy Initiative include (from left): Arthur Yip, Erhardt Graeff, Dillon Gardner, Joseph Azzarelli, Yuly Fuentes-Medel, and Samuel Brinton.
Team members of the Science Policy Initiative include (from left): Arthur Yip, Erhardt Graeff, Dillon Gardner, Joseph Azzarelli, Yuly Fuentes-Medel, and Samuel Brinton.
Len Rubenstein

Joseph Azzarelli, president of the MIT student group Science Policy Initiative (SPI), describes “science for policy” and “policy for science” as separate but interrelated. By educating its members and advocating for science funding, he says, SPI is “connecting the dots between science and policy.” Scientific research informs government policy on a range of issues, from health care to climate change; lawmakers influence scientific progress through budgets and regulations. How many MIT students understand this relationship — or their potential role in it?

“SPI’s mission is to provide opportunities for the MIT community to gain insight into how these processes work,” explains Azzarelli, a PhD candidate in chemistry. The organization’s monthly discussions draw 20–30 grad students plus the occasional curious undergrad, but the centerpiece of its activities since its 2007 inception has been annual trips to Washington, D.C. Students from SPI promote science and tech funding at Congressional Visits Day (CVD) each spring, and each fall they explore the workings of such federal agencies as the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

William Bonvillian — director of MIT’s Washington Office, which supports SPI — notes a big advantage students have on Capitol Hill: They can relate as contemporaries to the early-career congressional staffers who typically attend the meetings. “The students come in and say, ‘Here’s this nanotechnology I’m pursuing that could enable a whole series of medical advances,’ and the jaws of the staffers drop,” Bonvillian says.

Making the case for research to legislators and their staff, however, is an acquired skill. This year’s 18-student delegation prepped for Congressional Visits Day with the help of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS workshop covered, among other topics, how to frame these meetings as the start of an ongoing dialogue, as well as how to describe one’s research clearly and memorably. Azzarelli, for example, designs sensors that detect gases at low concentrations—and he’s learned that the phrase “digital nose” is handier in conversation at a legislative office than an explanation of electron transport properties.

To further expose MIT students to the interplay of science and policy, Bonvillian teaches a 20-hour SPI “boot camp” on campus during Independent Activities Period each winter. His curriculum emphasizes the vital historical connections among government, industry, and research. “Science is always looking ahead,” Bonvillian points out, “yet we’ve got to make the case better based on what we’ve accomplished in the past.” The popular course is now a requirement in MIT’s new Graduate Certificate Program in Science, Technology and Policy (a less intensive alternative to the Master’s degree offered by MIT’s Technology and Policy Program).

Can students make a difference in the struggle for R&D support? Both Azzarelli and Bonvillian cite SPI’s Stand With Science project, a reaction in 2011 to the looming threat of budget sequestration. SPI members penned an appeal to Congress and disseminated a video of grad students urging people to sign. With a second letter in 2012, Stand With Science ultimately gathered more than 10,000 signatures. While last December’s federal budget deal granted some temporary relief, Stand With Science lives on as a national network dedicated to speaking up for science funding, and it has spawned a multi-university consortium of science policy groups, led by former SPI president Samuel Brinton.

Whether or not a single petition or D.C. visit yields the desired results, the long-term effect of policy education on the students themselves will be invaluable as they advance in their careers and assume leadership roles.

“We’re in a democratic system, a system of contending interests,” Bonvillian observes, “and there’s no future in sitting on the sidelines.”

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