SPS goes to Washington

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Monday, April 13, 2015


by Sean Bentley, SPS/Sigma Pi Sigma Director, and Aline McNaull, AIP Policy Associate

SPS interns who participated in Congressional Visits Day. From the left - Kearns Louis-Jean (Xavier University of Louisiana), Simon Patané (Vassar College), Caleb Heath (University of Arkansas graduate; high school teacher), Robyn Smith (Drexel University), Cameron Caligan (Georgia Institute of Technology), Kevin Cheriyan (University of Maryland), and Aman Gill (Sonoma State University). Photo by Sean Bentley.

In March, ten Society of Physics Students undergraduate members joined hundreds of other researchers, educators, and STEM leaders from AAS, APS, AVS, and many other organizations for this year’s Science, Engineering, and Technology Congressional Visit Days (SET CVD). In all, nearly 2,000 meetings with congressional offices representing almost every state were held during this annual STEM convergence on Capitol Hill. The students had an intense, two-day introduction to the world of advocacy. After just one day of training on how to get the most out of a Congressional visit, they spent the second day speaking on behalf of the scientific community. The students spoke about issues important to all of us in science, but in terms personal to them that could make the issues real to the politicians.

Having students participate in SET CVD for the second straight year is a key element of SPS’s commitment to promoting active engagement in policy. SPS believes that an important part of its mission to help students transform into professionals is exposing them to the many facets of a life in science—research, teaching, outreach, policy, service, and beyond. The policy area is one that is perhaps easy to overlook, but one that SPS takes very seriously and pursues in many ways. With the generous support of Nobel laureate John Mather, SPS has hosted two undergraduate students each summer starting in 2011 to serve as policy interns on Capitol Hill.

Aman Gill (left), Courtney Lemon (right), and Simon Patané (second from right) meet with John Trey Smith (staffer for Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). Photo by Ivan Petrov, president of AVS.The SPS National Council gives students a direct chance to engage in policy of the Society, with 18 student representatives elected from universities across the country. The most recent issue of The SPS Observer (Winter 2014-2015) focused on science policy, urging students to become more engaged in the political process. Instilling these ideas while they are undergraduates will give long-term benefit to the STEM community.

When scientists visit Capitol Hill, it allows policymakers the opportunity to hear about research being conducted in their districts. At the same time, scientists present a perspective on some of the immense policy challenges that affect US research and development. By putting a face to the cause of sustainable and robust funding for research, scientists are able to engage in a wide variety of policy matters. What are the implications for researchers at federal laboratories of decisions to curtail spending for conference travel?  What would be the realistic effects to a university research lab if policymakers choose to cut funding for the NSF, DOD, and DOE?  What if those funding cuts were at or below sequestration-level funding?

Former SPS and NIST Intern Kearns Louis-Jean with Senator David Vitter (R-LA). Photo by Matt Payne.SPS members can offer Congress unique and powerful perspectives on these questions and on many other issues relevant to higher education. While policymakers are revisiting the subject of regulating the research process; finding funding mechanisms for federal financial aid; improving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education; and many other issues, SPS members can provide tales of challenges and stories of success, which can help guide new policy ideas.

For policymakers, research can sometimes seem daunting. SPS members can be a resource to the congressional staff, providing insight and information. Students who have worked on a research project can explain how federal funding helped make that possible, allowing them to develop their skills and become actively involved in the scientific community. As students who are in physics classrooms across the country, SPS members can also help policymakers define effective undergraduate STEM education. Policymakers are responsible for determining federal funding for NSF and the Department of Education, two agencies which support teacher preparation and professional development programs, provide funding for discipline-specific education research, and have programs explicitly designed to help underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. Many policymakers on Capitol Hill are interested in improving STEM learning, but may not have exposure to more recent examples of high-impact practices. Students can help provide these examples and can help foster an understanding of the critical role science plays within their universities.

Whether one is most concerned with funding for basic research, support for STEM education, federal initiatives to create jobs in science and technology, measures to address climate change, or any of a host of other science-related policies, there is no doubt that the intersection of government and science strongly affects much that we do. We need scientists who will speak on these issues to our elected officials. Students like these give us reason to be optimistic about the future of science in society.