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Spending a Week on the Hill with the Caltech Y

There are many parallels between science and politics. For instance, the push for greater gender, racial, and ethnic diversity is stronger than ever, and the need for better communication to restore public trust is growing across both these sectors. Through the Caltech Y's Washington, D.C. Science Policy Trip, 25 of us had the incredible opportunity to meet with policy makers, science advisors, and lobbyists. Through presentations and round-table discussions, we learned about the intersection of science and public policy, as well as our role in the transitional political landscape. We kicked off our arrival in D.C. with an alumni mixer – a surprising numbers of Techers find their way to the Capitol through programs like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellowship. It was a fun and enjoyable event to get a taste of programming to come.

On our first full day, we met with directors and fellows at the Department of Energy (DOE) and the AAAS. Steven Winberg, the Assistant Secretary of Fossil Energy, along with other members of his staff shared their efforts in making coal a safer, cleaner and efficient source of energy. We also discussed the potential in renewables and learned about the flow of human capital and resources across departments within the organization. At AAAS, we met with Rush Holt (Chief Executive Officer), Joanne Carney (Director, Government Relations), and Erin Heath (Associate Director, Government Relations) who emphasized the importance for scientists to be advocates for science. Scientists are conditioned to embrace the uncertainty in answers to various problems while much of the population would rather see absolutes. To bridge this gap, we must help strengthen science education and the public's understanding of the value of science.

Through presentations and round-table discussions, we learned about the intersection of science and public policy, as well as our role in the transitional political landscape.

In the following days, we visited Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House (OSTP) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In the evenings, we met with fellows and new professionals for informative sessions, including:

  • Rebecca Adler Misserendino (State Department)

  • Yi Pei (Office of Management and Budget)

  • Fadl Saadi (ARPA-E)

  • Caltech lobbyist Michael Ledford

  • John Andelin, former Assistant Director at the Office of Tech Assessment (OTA),

  • Mike Nelson, former science advisor to Vice President Gore

  • Bill Colglazier, former science advisor to Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry

Dr. Steven Walker and Dr. Peter Highnam, Director and Deputy Director of DARPA, talked to us about the role of project managers and programs. For four years, project managers work on an innovative project they are passionate about. We reviewed the benefits and offsets of having such a "memory-less" program, and were encouraged to become a part of it. While none of us are currently involved with DARPA, many graduate students on the trip are engaged with the NSF and it was particularly fascinating for them to learn about the grants from individuals who influence the application process there. I found the OSTP visit to be the most memorable, partly because it is near the White House. While the size and influence the OSTP changes with each administration, is it always committed to help the White House stay informed on issues like quantum computing and drug discoveries. On the subject of drug discoveries, we wrapped up our trip with a visit to the NIH, which has a campus so massive that its like a town of its own. From being equipped to handle past Ebola cases to housing the nation's specialists for a variety rare diseases, the NIH is truly a special place. Furthermore, it was a breath of fresh air to hear from a panel of women, and in-particular, women of color who are in charge of the organization's voice and funding. Across all these different organizations, each working on a diverse array of issues, there is one common theme: "budget is policy."

Our agenda was jam-packed with all these unique and valuable sessions, but we still managed to squeeze in trips to the Smithsonian’s museums and memorials. My personal highlight was a morning run with a few other Techers along the National Mall to visit the Lincoln Memorial and the White House's Christmas tree. Two years ago, I came on this trip as a freshman, and loved it so much that I was eager to help organize and participate in it again this year. I find speaking with experts at the forefront of science policy and having them impart their wisdom and perspectives to be a truly valuable experience. With the ever-changing landscapes of science and politics, there is something new to gain from every conversation. Any student who is interested in talking about, thinking about, or taking part in solutions to domestic and global issues would find this trip incredibly valuable. By becoming more aware of the relationship between science and policy, we, as scientists, can make a greater impact. This trip would not have been possible without support from the George Housner fund as well as the time and efforts that people invested generously to enhance our understanding of science policy. Hopefully, the Caltech Y's D.C. Trip will catalyze more Techers to get involved with science policy, and perhaps even work on the Hill!

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