By Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie
In April, I had the honor of visiting the Congressional offices of my home state Massachusetts to lobby on behalf of science funding. I spent Monday morning tromping between snow drifts off the coast of Maine, but by Tuesday evening I was wandering under cherry blossoms along Washington DC’s tidal basin in a T-shirt. I was a week into my field season monitoring flowering phenology in Acadia National Park, but I had traded my down jacket and LL Bean boots for a pencil skirt and pumps, hopped on a tiny eight-seated Cessna at the Bar Harbor airport, and flown to Washington DC as an Ecological Society of America (ESA) Graduate Student Policy Award recipient.
The ESA’s Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA) is actually a two-day experience. There’s a hint of career-fair, a crash course in suit-wearing, a steady shuffling of business cards, and a challenging exercise in communicating your dissertation at a middle-school-science-fair level. The agenda, of course, doesn’t list those activities. Instead, it reads: “Science Policy at Federal Agencies,” “Training Program for All Participants,” and “Orientation for Congressional Meetings.” That is Day One – the preparation for the migration of scientists to Capitol Hill, the lead in to the Congressional Visit Day.
ESA and the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), their partner in the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) Congressional Visit Day, provided an amazingly efficient training for the two dozen or so graduate students, post-docs, and professors gathered in Washington DC that week. (Winning a GSPA is only one of many ways to become a participant in BESC Congressional Visit Day. However, I would highly recommend applying for the ESA award— perks include lovely accommodations, extra ecological networking, and a lunch at the iconic Old Ebbitt Grill.)
In the morning, ESA hosted a panel on Science Policy at Federal Agencies with representatives from NSF, USGS, NOAA, and the U.S. Botanical Gardens. As we huddled around a conference table, this informal discussion highlighted the career paths of four PhDs who had eschewed academia for government gigs. Science advocacy, stealth education, and the leadership opportunities available in a short-staffed agency were among the themes covered, and in a burst of earnest patriotism, Alan Thornhill from USGS told us to “serve your country and your fellow Americans by taking your PhD into the government.”
Since I study phenology, I have to take a moment to comment on the timing of the BESC Congressional Visit Day. First, there was the sweet serendipity of being in DC for the peak of the cherry blossoms. Second, between applying for the ESA award and arriving in DC, my National Park Service funding — a two-year grant set to begin March 1 — had been sequestered. And third, the opening day of our training coincided with the release of President Obama’s budget. This made it tough to plan our Congressional meeting messages: Please fund science! This request may or may not be in line with the President’s budget! We don’t know – no one has had time to read it yet! We quickly learned that Obama’s budget included a small bump in NSF funding and that Capitol Hill is full of speed-readers.
On Thursday, we descended on the Hill in our best business attire and most sensible flats, armed with fact sheets on biological research funding and NSF returns in our home states. I worked the Massachusetts and Colorado delegations with Jennifer Rood, Rebecca Certner, and Paul Tanger under the steady hand of AIBS Senior Public Policy Associate Julie Palakovich Carr. (Though I am Massachusetts-born and now a PhD candidate at Boston University, my group included a native Coloradan studying in Massachusetts, and a Massachusetts man who is now at school in Colorado.) We learned to show up on time, but expect to wait; we enjoyed meetings with staffers in hallways, in vestibules, in the Senate cafeteria, and even, on occasion, in an actual conference room in the Congressperson’s office; we snacked on craisins in the reception area of Massachusetts offices and admired wide-angle landscape photographs of the Rocky Mountains in the Colorado rooms. We met with three AAAS fellows — scientists spending a sabbatical year working as legislative assistants in Congressional offices. I found these meetings to be the most informative: a nice balance between talking science and talking policy, in which we were able to explain our research in a little more detail and receive feedback on our ability to communicate to a wider audience.
By the end of the day — some eight meetings strung between Senate offices on one side of the Capitol and House offices on the other — we had developed an easy rhythm I’m a plant ecologist/I study coral reefs/My research applies to biofuels/My lab is funded through NIH, more comfortable and confident in our talking points. Both the Massachusetts and Colorado delegations were universally supportive of research and science and higher education, and in some ways our meetings were very easy. At happy hour, we gathered with the other groups from BESC, some of whom had more adversarial elected officials and staffers on their schedules. There were stories of tense, tight-lipped meetings and of photo-ops with Senators and of the motorcade we were pretty sure belonged to Vice President Biden.
As I crawled into my plush hotel bed in trendy Foggy Bottom that night, my sensible flats kicked into a pile in the corner and crushed from a day of hoofing it up marble staircases and across endless underground hallways, I reflected on the whirlwind tour of DC, science, and policy. For two days, we had left the field notes and R scripts and manuscripts in prep to bring our research to an entirely different audience. One of the ESA GSPA awardees had literally just left a scientific conference, jumping from a talk at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting to meetings with the Pennsylvania delegation. Themes of service and advocating for science resonated throughout from the first panel at ESA headquarters on Wednesday morning through the last meeting with Senator Warren’s staff on Thursday evening.
Despite the support and sequester-related-commiseration I received from the Massachusetts and Colorado delegations all day, I knew that my presence in DC was not likely to save my NPS funding. I would return to Maine with my field season stipend still in limbo and a sudden scrambling for a teaching fellowship in the fall. And yet, I felt a sense of accomplishment, something like the happy exhaustion after a long day in the field setting up plots. No data had been collected yet, but the framework was materializing, the foundation laid, the effort of early season work seeding a hopeful future. Stumping for science and speaking on behalf of all ecology research, I had laid out the case for sustained funding through NSF and other federal agencies. And in the process, I had found a whole array of alternative career paths, cultivated a clearer two-minute story of my research, and discovered unknown depths of complexity in science policy. Funding sequestered or not, this GSPA event was definitely worth stepping out of my Carhartts and on to Capitol Hill.