Reflecting on AAAS CASE 2016

by Sarah Welsh-Huggins, Ph.D. Candidate, Civil Engineering, CU Boulder

aaas_2016

In mid-April, I had the privilege of attending (along with FOSEP’s own Angela Boag; the above photo shows us chatting with Sen. Corey Gardner) the AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering workshop in Washington D.C. What follows is both a summary of our time at the workshop, but also my reflection on how this program confirmed my desire to pursue a career advocating for effective, multi-disciplinary policies to support sustainable community development.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions about the AAAS CASE workshop or how to apply for this opportunity in 2017 by contacting me at sarah.welshhhuggins@colorado.edu.

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In graduate school (for me, at least) it can be easy to lose sight of long-term post-doctoral goals, especially when sucked into the struggles of the daily grind. Attending the CASE workshop was an energizing reminder of why I decided to climb the intellectual mountain that is my Ph.D. The program brought together 90 students (most in some stage of their graduate career, along with a couple of keen undergraduates) from across the U.S. in disciplines ranging from neuroscience to marine ecology to civil engineering.

While we were generally a self-selecting crowd with respect to our interest in science policy, most of us had little idea as to what “policy-making” actually entails, beyond what we’ve learned from binge-watching House of Cards. Over three jam-packed days in Washington D.C., we were introduced to the worlds of “science for policy” and “policy for science,” and what it means to be an effective leader in each. What do NASA and the FBI have in common? Well, their funding comes from the same congressional appropriations committee. What, then, is an appropriations bill? How does that differ from an allocation bill? Each session was thoughtfully designed to shape our understanding of a distinct piece of the policy puzzle. We learned how critical it is for policy-makers to work with highly trained scientists and engineers, who can succinctly summarize and explain to our governing officials the technical minutiae behind cutting-edge science.

We scientists love to use long sentences with multi-syllabic words and too many semi-colons, but as we learned that week, politicians and their teams don’t have time to review every 30-page journal article from every academic discipline. Instead, what story can you tell about your work and its significance in three brief, yet informative bullet points to help politicians make informed decisions on legislation related to your field?

Policy is not only decisions made by elected officials, as we learned in a lecture by a Congressional Research Specialist who has worked on the Hill for over 40 years. She graced us with a short, humorous version of the eight-hour lecture she gives to every freshmen class of Senators and Representatives on how Congress “really” works. She and all of the congressional staffers, university public relations lobbyists, and science policy officials with whom we met demonstrated how much policy-making depends on the thousands of behind the scenes actors working each day out of the limelight.

Out of all the planned activities, I knew least what to expect from our day on Capitol Hill, when Angela and I were to meet with our Colorado Congressmen: Senator Gardiner and his aides, and then the staff of Senator Bennet, and Representatives Polis and Perlmutter. It was an honor, albeit an intimidating one, to walk down gilded, marble hallways into the offices of our respective Congressmen. But despite us being a single line item on a busy schedule for those we met, each staffer, and the Senators themselves when we encountered them, made us feel welcome and appreciated. Even as a doctoral candidate, I sometimes forget that I am not just a student, but in fact, a burgeoning expert in my field. Our conversations with the staffers of our Colorado Congressmen served as encouragement that my academic work is important to others and can make a difference to improve the safety and resilience of our communities. The staffers we met on “Hill Day” were themselves knowledgeable of the issues in natural hazard mitigation about which both Angela and I care so deeply, and I was grateful for the respect and genuine interest they showed in the specific work of our individual dissertations.

I left D.C. convinced that the policy-making world is much closer to The West Wing than it is to House of Cards. Policy-makers are real people who strive each day to do what they think is best for our county. This perhaps offers opportunity for new dialogue and partnerships to build successful “science for policy” and “policy for science.”

The CASE program gave me a new perspective on how the intellectual curiosity and perseverance that I have nurtured during my Ph.D. will carry over to a career in policy for holistic community planning and was an affirming, catalyzing start to the final chapter of my doctoral studies.

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