A Participant’s Perspective: STEM on the Hill

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Daniel Richman, Ellen Weiss, and Catherine Zander in front of the U.S. Capitol.

Every year, the Science-Engineering-Technology Working Group (SETWG), a network of researchers, educators, and business professionals, gather in Washington DC to meet with congressional representatives. The objective is to discuss the impact of federal funding on their work and communities, and to emphasize that the federal funding of research and development is a long-term investment in our country’s future.  Because of my background in political science and long standing interest in policy, I wrote to the Biophysical society asking how I could be more involved in their advocacy efforts. As a fantastic stroke of luck, they were looking for interested society members to visit congress for STEM on the Hill day on April 12 and 13th, 2016.

Despite being involved in university and national groups and organizations, I had no active experience with federal politics. I hoped that by taking part in STEM on the Hill day, that not only would I get to be part of delivering an important message, but I would also gain understanding of the workings of congressional offices and staffers. In the first day at Washington, SETWG held an orientation session in the Capitol Visitor’s Center to prepare us all for meeting with the Senate and Congressional offices. The orientation was run by congressional staffers and advisors, and representatives from many organizations including The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), and The Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America (ASTRA). They presented on topics including the President’s 2017 budget request, the organization of committees, bills, and appropriations, to the best method of communicating with the legislators and staff.  This gave us a working understanding of how the federal government allocates funds for different organizations.

The next day, prepared with the advice and practice pitches from the orientation, Ellen Weiss, the Director of Policy and Outreach for the Biophysical Society, guided Dr. Richman from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and me to meet with our legislators. Ellen had arranged for us to meet with six legislators, three from Georgia and three from Alabama. In 2015, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where I am a postdoctoral researcher, received $243,263,382 from NIH grants. As Birmingham’s largest employer (23,000 jobs reported in 2013), federal funding is vital for the city’s economy. Unsurprisingly, because of the huge impact that federal funding has on Alabama’s economy, Senator Shelby, our first office visit, is a champion of the sustained support of the NIH.  I, coincidentally, work in the Richard C. and Annette N. Shelby Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research Building at UAB, for which Senator Shelby was instrumental in securing the funds. In most of the offices we visited, we found the same supportive attitude. In the offices that do not have the long history of NIH or NSF support the Legislative Correspondents and Assistants were curious to hear about the applications of our research, and our stories about work that was lost or delayed because of breaks in or lack of funding. In each office we visited, we asked for the support of, at minimum 34.5 billion for the NIH, 8 billion for the NSF, and 5.672 billion for the DOE Office of Science; we left behind materials that broke down the economic impact upon the state. After our meetings, we wrote thank you letters to the offices encouraging them to contact us whenever we can be of assistance.

As Tip O’Neill stated, “All politics is local.” What I understand more fully after taking part in STEM on the Hill day is that regardless of political affiliations, the men and women who run for public office have a desire to help their constituents, but as their constituents, we also have an active role to play. We met a wide array of people waiting to meet with their representatives. From Georgia based poultry farmers and food distributors, to bus companies and airport architects, they are all meeting with their legislators to have their needs and problems heard and addressed.  The scientific community as a whole must adopt this hands on approach. With that, I encourage you all to invite your local and state representatives to your labs and facilities. We must start sharing the importance of our work, not just at academic conferences, but also with our representatives. This is the best way to show that the federal funds given to scientific and technological disciplines are a beneficial investment in our professional communities and in the future of our nation.

–Catherine Zander, University of Alabama at Birmingham

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