WSU Students Attend AAAS-CASE Workshop in March for Training on How to Apply Their Scientific Skills to Policy
Every year the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) holds a workshop in Washington, D.C., for young scientists. They travel from all across the country to learn about the inner workings of Congress and how to communicate the importance of their research to politicians. This year, Wayne State’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program sponsored four students for the March 18-21, 2018, workshop: undergraduate ReBUILDetroit scholars Leena Abbas (nutrition and food science) and Rachel Bruinsma (psychology), and doctoral candidates Heather Mooney (sociology) and yours truly, Niko Moses (cancer biology). The workshop, “Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE),” featured two days of lectures by AAAS staff members who have been working on Capitol Hill anywhere from a year to decades. Topics included an introduction to the federal budget process and the Office of Science, Technology, and Policy; a rundown of the structure and function of Congress; and an in-depth description of how a bill gets passed, which the presenter, AAAS legend Judy Schneider, called “Schoolhouse Rock cranked up to 12.”
After this initial overview of when budget appropriations should be completed versus when they actually reach the floor, the roles of subcommittees and the current heads of each in the House and Senate, and the hierarchy of the Office of Science, Technology, and Policy, we were revisited by Tobin (Toby) Smith, the vice president of AAAS. I first met Toby at BEST’s Careers in Government half-day workshop at Wayne State, where he shared his experience as a businessman transitioning to a career as a liaison between scientists and politicians. Toby emphasized the importance of explaining why your research matters, rather than offering the minutiae of mechanisms and bogging down key conclusions with details. He took the same approach in the final session of the CASE workshop.
The next day we would be traveling to the Hill to lobby our congressional representatives, and most of us were only familiar with specifying the research value of our work to colleagues. Other scientists speak our language; politicians and staffers do not. Toby taught us key aspects of the language that Congress does speak: they are greatly influenced by media coverage and the direction in which the media takes particular dialogues; they respond well to personal convictions on particular issues (especially narratives—they love a good story); and they are generally the most responsive to the needs of constituents in their districts. We tailored our approach accordingly, sitting down with other students from Michigan (U of Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech) also attending the workshop to decide which issues we wanted to bring before our representatives, and then who among us had narratives we could use to introduce our chosen issues.
We decided to focus on two pretty broad topics: scientific funding and education. The majority of our labs in Michigan are funded by National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense grants, so this topic was relatable to all of us and simple enough to draw up talking points for. I took the education side along with another woman named Nico (the first other female Nico I’ve ever met!). We had both been supported by scholarships and grants throughout our undergraduate careers and were now supported by a stipend at the graduate level at our public institutions. Enabling future biochemists to follow in our footsteps certainly depends on federal investment in our nation’s public institutions. However, the ability of students to pursue a STEM career also depends on the availability of federal loans to students who cannot afford the upfront cost of college. The other reason I chose to advocate for education was because I am against HR 4508, a bill before the House that will cut the amount of money students can borrow for their undergraduate education, allow for-profit institutions to compete for federal funding, and eliminate the 10-year public sector student loan forgiveness program signed into law in 2007 by President George Bush. These drastic measures alarmed me, and I wanted to express to my representatives how important it is to either amend the bill or vote against it.
Unfortunately, this story has an anti-climactic ending. The morning of our visit to the Hill, Washington was hit with a whopping two inches of snow, sufficient enough to shut down the federal government. We were able to meet with one staffer, but that meeting served more as a Q&A about how she went from a biochemistry Ph.D. to a congressional staffer. Still, that meeting broadened my understanding of the opportunities in policy available post-Ph.D., and I returned to Michigan ready to advocate for science at the state level. I am currently engaging in advocacy work in partnership with the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, but I never would have sought out this opportunity without the knowledge, skills, and confidence I gained from the AAAS-CASE workshop.
Niko Moses is a 5th-year Ph.D. student in WSU’s cancer biology program and is a BEST Phase III internship awardee for 2017-18. She is currently conducting a career exploration in WSU’s Office of Technology Commercialization. Niko’s dissertation research focuses on studying the interplay between HDAC6 and Chk1 in response to ionizing radiation in lung cancer, but once her Ph.D. is completed she will be transitioning into the legal realm to apply her scientific knowledge to either technology commercialization or science policy.