Washington, D.C. Trip Exposes Y Students to Role of Science in Public Policy

Annually, the Caltech Y hosts a trip to Washington D.C. over winter break to give undergraduate and graduate students a unique opportunity to meet with policy makers on the Hill. This year, we had seventeen attendees who got to speak with scientists working as policy makers, science advisors, and lobbyists. We had the lovely opportunity to have round-table discussions with these decision-makers on what it means to be a scientist in Washington and the impact that one can have.

We went on four site visits: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and to the Executive Office of the President (EOP) in the White House complex.

We had the lovely opportunity to have round-table discussions with these decision-makers on what it means to be a scientist in Washington and the impact that one can have.

At NOAA, we met with Ben DeAngelo, the Deputy Director of the Climate Program Office, and meteorologist Tom Di Liberto, who is in charge of social media for NOAA. During these meetings, we learned about what it means to conduct research as a government agency. After hearing from Dr. DeAngelo about his experiences as a scientist at the EPA and NOAA, we were given a brief overview about scholarships, careers, and other opportunities available for scientists at NOAA.

Our visit to NOAA culminated in a demonstration of their patented “Science on Sphere” given by Di Liberto; massive amounts of satellite and tracking data over a period of years, from global sea temperatures to whale migratory paths, was visualized as a time progression on the three dimensional ball. Our hosts graciously hosted us for thirty minutes past our appointed meeting end-time. We couldn’t stop asking questions, including “Can you make the ball look like the death star?” (Yes, he could.)

The following day, we headed to the NSF to meet with Fleming Crim, the chief operating officer. Here, we learned the decision-making process for funding at the NSF. We learned that the mission of the NSF is to promote science, regardless of what the trending science of the day is.

A similar message was echoed by our speakers at AAAS, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization determined to facilitate the success of scientific achievement across the country and responsible for the publication of Science magazine. We were welcomed by Lydia Kaprelian, editorial manager of Science in the Classroom, a project where graduate students translate scientific articles into readable summaries for high school students. She made sure to mention that the program is always looking for volunteers who wish to practice communicating scientific discoveries to a broader audience, and several students are now following up on this opportunity!

After this introduction, Interim CEO of AAAS Dr. Leshner, Chief Government Relations Officer Joanne Carney, and Program Director of the STEM Education Department Michael Feder shared their experiences working at AAAS. We also heard from Dr. Drosback, who works for the project SciLine aimed at connecting journalists with scientists who can provide them with the scientific background for their stories, and Project Director Aicher, who also works to further communication between the scientific community and the general public in the Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues.

At the White House Executive Office of the President, we asked the Executive Secretary of the National Space Council, Dr. Pace, what the motivations were behind new initiatives like the creation of the Space Force and the revitalization of the manned space program with the goal of landing a man on the moon. (A stellar Q&A if you ask me!) Next we met with President Trump’s Science Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Kelvin Droegemeier, who fielded a flurry of questions with poise. Dr. Droegemeir stressed that although public perception is that the Trump administration rejects science, current scientific evidence is “at the table” when important decisions are being made; if a policy appears to oppose science, it is because other economic, social, and geopolitical factors were at play.

In the evenings, we met with Heather Dean (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), Yi Pei (Office of Management and Budget), Mike Nelson (former science advisor to Vice President Al Gore), Rebecca Adler Miserendino (Senior Climate Finance Advisor), Victoria Chernow (ARPA-E Fellow), Bill Colglazier (former science advisor to Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry), and Michael Ledford (Caltech’s principle lobbyist).

For four nights and four days, 17 trip participants lived among the hustle and bustle of the US Capital–the origin of policies that extend their reaches across the nation into our homes and our laboratories, with rippling effects felt worldwide. Students learned about national and global history through visiting the Smithsonian Institutions, explored the contentious manner in which information is spread via news media at the Newseum before it closed its doors permanently Dec. 31, 2019, and even sat in on the momentous impeachment proceedings at the House of Representatives. We glimpsed visions of possible futures, where the scientific binary of correct and incorrect no longer applies, but the aid of creative and analytical thought is still constant.

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