I attended the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) Congressional Visits Day in Washington, DC on April 25th and 26th, 2017. This is an annual lobbying day organized by the American Institute of Biological Science (AIBS) to bring scientists of all career stages from across the country to DC to meet with their Congressional representatives. This year, we requested funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) at $8 billion for fiscal year 2018.

We were asked to come prepared with stories about how basic science funding has benefited our state, and I was advised by a previous attendee to get some hard numbers. I contacted Ellyn Perrone, the Senior Associate Vice President for Research at UT Austin who is a registered lobbyist for UT and travels to DC frequently. In our phone call, I was told:

  • UT Austin typically receives $65-70 million per year from NSF and a similar amount from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The new Texas Advanced Computing Center brings in an additional $59 million from NSF, and the new medical school will soon bring more from NIH as well. Pickle Research Campus also brings in $95-100 million annually from the Department of Defense (DOD)
  • That personal stories about my own decision to pursue science in Texas, the broader impacts of my work, and how I was enabled in my career by federal funding would be more effective arguments than statistics
  • Not to use the phrase “climate change”
  • To speak at a 4th grade language level
  • To follow up each meeting with an email addressing our conversation
  • Lastly, that NSF has brought the concerns about transparency and accountability in federally funded science (championed by Lamar Smith, R-Texas) upon themselves by stonewalling Congress (we received no response to a follow-up email requesting further explanation)

Armed with this information and my own research, I arrived in DC and attended the first part of training called “Science Policy at Federal Agencies.” This meeting was primarily about fellowship opportunities for PhDs interested in science policy. A full list of fellowships available can be found at science-engage.org. I did, additionally, learn two very interesting pieces of information:

  • Anyone working in the executive branch has to publicly defend the President’s proposed budget even if it is in direct opposition to the organization’s goals. For example, if you work in the EPA, you have to defend the proposed 31% cut to the EPA budget. This is because anyone in the executive branch is an extension of the President.
  • When cuts to science funding are proposed to federal agencies, those agencies usually cut the budget of national labs first because those labs are primarily in Republican districts and that means job losses in those districts. This gives departments some leverage to reduce cuts.

In the afternoon, we learned some basics about the current state of federal science funding and the general outlook:

  • Governmental fiscal years (denoted by FY2016, FY2017 etc.) begin in October of the year before (i.e. FY2017 started October 2016). Government shutdowns occur because Congress does not agree on a budget before the fiscal year begins; they generally pass “continuing resolutions” to keep the government funded until they can agree. For FY2017, the final agreement wasn’t achieved until late April 2017 (i.e. halfway through FY2017).
  • NSF was funded at about $7.5 billion for FY2016 and FY2017.
  • We were in DC to talk about the importance of funding basic research, and, as NSF is the only federal agency that funds all types of basic research, our request was to fund NSF at $8 billion for FY2018.
  • Note: the President just released his budget request for FY2018, which asks that NSF get cut to about $6.7 billion.

At the end of the day, I processed all this information and re-wrote my prepared statement of a few minutes in length. I was chosen to lead my team for meetings with the office of each of my representatives, John Cornyn (R-Texas), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. My team also met with the office’s of Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Bill Flores (R-Texas), and several representatives of Pennsylvania. I felt nervous but prepared with a lot to say.

The next post will be about the meeting day.

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