Grad Life: Why I Meet with Policymakers for Science

by Shelby Doyle, Biological Engineering PhD candidate on May 23, 2017 · 0 comments

in Campus, Grad Life, Science

Doyle outside the Library of Congress.

There’s been a lot of talk of politics lately. (Was that an understatement?)

And for a lot of scientists, that talk felt inescapable when science funding and certain areas of research became headline news and several voices at MIT went on the record in response, including those of Tyler Jacks and President Reif. With all this talk, it seems many folks at MIT were looking for a way to take some action, many choosing to march out these feelings publicly.

As a biological engineer working in cancer, I was paying close attention to all this and more, but in response I decided to talk some more.

Shelby Doyle and Sungil Kim, EECS graduate student. Photo: Sungil Kim.

For the past 11 years, the Science Policy Initiative at MIT has led a group of students to advocate for science funding in the offices of the House and Senate. I’ve traveled with them down to DC for the past three years to put a real face to the billions of federal dollars spent on research each year and to encourage the folks with the purse strings to continue supporting these expenditures. This has had the happy side-effect of exposing me and other young scientists and engineers to the world of science policy and science advocacy with the help of our MIT Washington Office and the MIT International Policy Lab.

But each year upon my return I can’t shake the notion that more than the advocacy we do, it is the things we are learning in the process that will make a difference.

My perspective has improved.

In DC I was surprised to learn that the majority of the workforce on the Hill, the legislative assistants and aides, are young professionals around the age of 30, and, though they often don’t “speak science,” they are remarkably like MIT graduate students.

They know a whole heck of a lot about some specific things and enough to get by on most other things. They devote long hours to a tedious process, where their medium is often uncooperative and the end result is not always useful. They are trying to do good work to please the top dog they represent, always looking for collaborative partners to move things forward. They don’t get paid a whole lot, but they do what they do because they think it will improve the world.

And if that’s not a description of a PhD student, I don’t know what is!

My depth-of-field has widened.

Doyle in the Rayburn House Office Building before a meeting with Rep. Thomas Rooney.

At the lab bench, I am acutely aware of the cost of a lab reagents (looking at you ChIP grade antibodies!) And, as a PhD student learning about grant writing and funding, I am aware that I’m usually spending money awarded from a government agency through a competitive review process. But prior to this trip, my mind was framing the challenge based solely on what motivates a reviewer to reward our ideas.

But what about all the funding decisions made before that? What goes into passing a budget to fund government agencies? When asking a congressional office to support science funding, I have had to ask myself “What will motivate a congressperson?” Going on these trips has forced me to acknowledge the many district-specific interests and political realities confronting each congressperson. I’ve been forced to take a systems view on this multivariate equation called the political process that I could not have learned without experiencing it.

My focus has shifted.

I chose to be an engineer because I wanted to be a difference-maker. I was excited to bring scientific knowledge and technological capabilities to bear on the challenges in my community.

Stepping out of the lab and onto the Hill has convicted me in deeper measure that to best serve my community, I will need to offer more than my best intellectual and technical efforts throughout my career. In equal measure, I will need to offer my hand in partnership to these other scholars in the political realm, seeing them as partners in the process of progress.

To learn more about these activities, you can see the official press release from our students. To connect with SPI as a peer or to support our programming, please contact us.

Grad Life blog posts offer insights from current MIT graduate students twice a month on Slice of MIT.

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