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UC Science Undergraduates Advocate for Science Research Funding on Capitol Hill Trip

Two McNair Scholars met with the Tristate’s congressional aides on the sidelines of the Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop in Washington, D.C.

Date: 5/8/2017 12:00:00 AM
By: Jonathan Goolsby
Other Contact: Julie Campbell
Other Contact Phone: (513) 509-1114

UC ingot   Third-year University of Cincinnati junior Chelse Spinner and fifth-year senior Robert Settles recently participated in the Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop in Washington, D.C.

Both are recipients of the prestigious McNair Scholarship — a federally-funded undergraduate award (named after Challenger astronaut Dr. Ronald E. McNair) for exceptional first-generation or demographically-underrepresented students pursuing science-related studies.

The two McNair Scholars were nominated for participation in the 2017 conference by UC faculty members. Spinner is a Biology major in the College of Arts & Sciences. Settles is a Civil Engineering major in the College of Engineering & Applied Science.

The annual CASE program, organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), helps upperclassmen and graduate students, “learn about the structure and organization of Congress, the federal budget and appropriations processes, and tools for effective science communication and civic engagement,” according to its online description.

 “I didn’t know anything about science policy, so going to the workshop, I got a crash course in how science and policy work together, especially at the federal level,” Spinner said.

Speakers at the conference included Kei Koizumi, former Senior Advisor to the Director for the National Science and Technology Council in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Representative Bill Foster (a physicist who now serves Illinois’ 11th District), and various Congressional staffers and aides.

Students also sojourned to the Hill to meet with representatives from their respective states’ Congressional delegations. Settles and Spinner were able to meet with aides to Senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown, Rep. Brad Wenstrup and Rep. Steve Chabot. They spoke about the need to preserve funding for basic research.

As part of their grounding in science policy, before heading off to the Capitol, conference participants heard a presentation on the proposed federal budget and examined its implications for researchers.

It should be noted that the White House’s 2018 budget proposal includes what have been widely described as “drastic” cuts to federally-funded science agencies.

The Trump administration’s budget, if not amended, would reduce the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Research and Development by nearly 50%, hand an 18% trim to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and, potentially, affect the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is funded out of a non-defense discretionary spending fund slated to be cut by 10%. The NSF funds many collegiate research grants and science scholarships.

“We went over, in detail, what areas within the non-defense discretionary spending would be cut,” Spinner said. “Looking further down the line, more cuts are probably going to be made.”

“There might not be as many grant opportunities within the NIH and NSF,” she lamented. “A lot of researchers get grants from the NSF, so that would definitely be something they should be looking out for and staying educated on.”

Settles, who said that his experience at CASE “piqued an interest” in him to one day work in the public sector (he wants to become a city manager and, smiling, wouldn’t rule out one day running for office), agreed with her.

“Scientists have to identify a champion — someone they believe can advocate on their behalf on Capitol Hill,” he advised. “Get involved. Be loud. Don’t just think that the politicians don’t care, or that they don’t consider what we have to say.”

But did the two scholars come away from CASE with the impression that Washington feels like science matters?
“I got a sense that it matters, but it’s not a priority,” Spinner said. “At the end of the day, everyone understands that funding for science is important, but it’s not necessarily a priority.”

“For the most part, they all seemed to listen to what we said and gave some sort of positive response to what we were saying, but did I leave each of those conversations thinking that they were going to tell the Congressman, you know, ‘We really have to do this’? I didn’t get that feeling,” Settles agreed.

Spinner, who plans to go for a Master’s in Public Health and a PhD in Epidemiology so that she might one day work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), worried about the implications of an era of lean federal funding for civilian scientists.

“If it’s going to be like that every single fiscal year during this administration’s time in office, then what is it going to look like at the end of that?,” she asked. “There’s so much research going on in different areas that are equally important. How are they going to spread the money out?”

“They’re going to probably have to limit the amount of NSF grants that are given out each year. And that’s limiting the amount of potential, and [limit the number of] people that can go into graduate school and do research.”

Both Settles and Spinner noted that the potential for largescale reductions in available Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) funding would undermine the United States’ efforts to maintain its technological primacy — even as politicians on both sides of the aisle decry a perceived loss of America’s competitive edge relative to China, Europe and other major powers.

“I’d like to believe that we’re going to be fine,” Settles said, smiling. That’s my patriotism sliding in there a little bit.”
“At the same time, I’m concerned for the future of American science, just in terms of the way our current administration seems to handle education and how it handles information that the scientific community more or less agrees upon,” he emphasized.

“It worries me that our decisionmakers are not aligning with the scientific community,” he said. “In the future, I hope they’ll agree on a budget that can work for everyone. I don’t know how likely that is, but I’m hoping that’s the case,” Spinner added.

“Already, there’s a disparity in the number of minorities who pursue STEM fields, so if funding’s going to be lowered to programs that support minorities in STEM, then what’s that going to look like?,” she asked.

“We’re past the point now where we can say diversity doesn’t help innovation,” Settles agreed. “And if we’re all on that playing field, why aren’t we supporting it?”

“That’s really doing this country a disservice,” he asserted. “We’ve seen this time and time again: science gets put on the back burner. And it’s kind of alarming, especially if they want to use the argument that this is what’s wrong with our country, that we’re losing our ability to compete with these other countries.”

“But [politicians] are the main reason this is happening,” Settles noted. “It’s problematic.”

How can scientists and student researchers turn the tide?

“Something they could do is stay up to date on what’s happening in government and what the budget’s looking like over the next fiscal year,” Spinner suggested. “Maybe getting more involved in science policy? You can become a member of AAAS and get info from them about what’s going on.”

Settles noted that, at CASE, participants learned — directly, from both Democratic and Republican legislators’ aides — the primary factors driving action on the Hill.

“Decisions get made in Congress based on politics first, then it goes on to procedure,” he said. “The last thing is, ‘Is it a good thing to pass?’ And it’s kind of a shame that’s how it works. But that’s just the nature, I guess.”

Spinner suggested that more scientists should take on a direct role in shaping national science and education policy by running for office.

“I think a lot of scientists don’t feel they do play a role [in government],” she posited. “They could still pursue research, but they could also influence science policy, which could affect how research is done: who’s getting grants, how the budget is made. They could influence that. They know where money needs to go.”

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