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Advocating for federal research funding on Capitol Hill

Students and postdocs from MIT's Science Policy Initiative meet with lawmakers on science-engineering-technology Congressional Visit Days 2019.
An MIT delegation met with 69 offices of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives from 23 states, including staff from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
An MIT delegation met with 69 offices of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives from 23 states, including staff from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
Photo courtesy of the Science Policy Initiative

In late March, 29 MIT graduate students, postdocs, and undergraduates traveled to Washington to speak with members of Congress about the need for continued federal investment of science and technology R&D in fiscal year 2020 and beyond.

The delegation met with 69 offices of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives from 23 states, including staff from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The Congressional Visit Days (CVD) trip is organized by the Science Policy Initiative (SPI), a student group that works at the intersection of research and public policy. This is the 13th consecutive year MIT students have participated in CVD.

In addition to advocating for federal support of science research, CVD serves another purpose — giving students the opportunity to practice speaking with members of Congress. In preparatory sessions on campus in the weeks leading up to CVD, students received training on how to advocate effectively. These sessions touched on the federal budgeting process, effective communication, and more practical details such as contacting congressional offices to schedule a meeting, or even navigating the numerous buildings on Capitol Hill. No matter their future careers, SPI aims to equip students with the tools to engage with the policy world.

“It was personally important to me to advocate for science funding during CVD. This trip was an incredible educational opportunity that empowered me to engage with senators and representatives as a scientist,” said Cherry Gao, a PhD student in the Department of Biological Engineering, who was motivated to participate by the NSF funding that enabled her to train in Antarctica as an early-career environmental scientist.

The focus of CVD on science and the federal budget was particularly timely this year. Released earlier in March, President Trump’s budget proposal for FY 2020 included significant cuts to the National Institutes of Health (down 12 percent), the National Science Foundation (down 12 percent), and the Department of Energy (down 11 percent).

In their congressional meetings, students shared stories about the impact of interrupted or decreased federal funding on scientific research. For example, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships Program (GRFP) is a critical fellowship program that recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students enrolled in research-based programs in the United States.

In recent years, the GRFP has awarded 2,000 fellowships a year. The fiscal 2020 President's Budget Request proposes funding for only 1,600 awards. Since 1952, the GRFP has funded over 50,000 Graduate Research Fellowships, with 42 fellows going on to become Nobel laureates, so cuts to this important talent pipeline could have significant ramifications for the United States research capability in the future.

In addition to sustained federal science funding, students asked members of Congress to express their support for H.R. 36, the “Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act of 2019.” The bill, introduced by Reps. Eddie Johnson (D-TX) and Frank Lucas (R-OK), would increase research efforts to understand the causes and effects of sexual harassment in the workplace as well as examine policies to reduce the prevalence and impact of such harassment. H.R. 36 follows through on the recommendations of a recent National Academies report, which found that 58 percent of individuals in academia experience sexual harassment. HR 36 hopes to address how harassment causes women to leave scientific field, despite the significant resources dedicated to retaining women in science at a time when we need them most.

“The HR 36 Bill is a necessary step in our journey to analyzing the roots and addressing the consequences of the sexual harassment that persists in STEM fields,” said Océane Boulais, a first-year graduate student in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences at the Media Lab. “While visiting local representatives during the CVD trip, the majority of those representatives I spoke to had not yet heard of the bill. It was empowering to advocate for a piece of legislation that is so important to me and the field I love to work within.”

Students also advocated for renewed funding for the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). From 1972 to 1995, the OTA helped members of Congress to do their job in the best way possible by providing unbiased analysis of complex technical issues.

“Congress needs premier technical expertise, now more than ever.” said Quantum Wei, a PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “The absence of the OTA compromises the ability of Congress to govern. Technological developments will continue to change our society, impacting American lives. The OTA would equip policymakers to write laws in anticipation and in response to a rapidly changing world.”

The student delegation requested a combined $65 billion for the fiscal year 2020 budgets of the National Institutes for Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA Science, and the Department of Energy Office of Science.

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