This the second post about the American Institute of Biological Sciences Congressional Visits Day in Washington, DC . For a summary of what I learned during my preparation and training for meetings, see part 1.
On the morning of April 26th, 2017, I took the metro to Union Station and walked with my team to the Senate office buildings. These are large, square buildings connected to the Capitol building by underground tunnels and a subway system only available to Congresspeople and staffers. Every office is heavily adorned in state paraphernalia and has bowls of candy or snacks made from their state or district, which made me glad I was on the Pennsylvania team, home of Hershey’s and many potato chip brands. The Texas offices primarily offered skittles, starbursts, and Dr. Pepper. By the end of the day I wasn’t feeling great.
The first meeting was with a staffer from John Cornyn’s office. He was very receptive to our request for increased federal science funding; upon hearing that the initial investment to start up a lab is many thousands of dollars, often hundreds of thousands, but that the money is wasted without sustained funding, he nodded and said, “good point,” taking notes. He listened intently as we discussed the role of basic research, which is to provide the knowledge base for applied and medical research, and the role of profit-driven industry in research. We noted that because it is profit-driven, industry will not necessarily conduct science in the interest of the American people. Rather, the role of industry is to take discoveries from fundamental research and apply them. He agreed that without federal science funding, Texas would lose a lot of innovation and entrepreneurship to other states. After we discussed why NSF funding is important, we asked that the Senator support our funding level of $8 billion for FY2018, he nodded but gave no definitive answer. Overall, it felt like a friendly and productive meeting.
Next, I split with my group to meet with Lisa Murkowski’s office, the senior senator from Alaska. Here, I met with two staffers, including a Sea Grant fellow. They were very receptive to my arguments supporting science funding, especially regarding how Alaska is understudied and could profoundly benefit from investment in research. This was gratifying, but the next topic was more of a tricky issue: climate change. I needed to hear from my Alaskan representatives that they were aware that the melting of the permafrost in the Arctic is releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, that it is estimated that if we reach a certain tipping point in warming the Arctic will release more carbon than current annual US emissions every single summer, and, at that point, we will have begun an irreversible positive feedback loop that will warm the planet uncontrollably even if we cut emissions. This is particularly relevant for Alaskans as we will be among the most severely impacted in America. In fact, we already have been. Weather has become extremely unpredictable, there are 31 towns and villages already in need of relocation, and sea ice extent is reduced further every year.
I told them it is time for Murkowski to stand up for what is right for Alaska and to call out the climate change deniers. I said that I understood the political reality of supporting oil and gas drilling for Alaskan politicians, but that we need to stop disturbing the tundra and chaining the Alaskan economy to the oil industry. To my relief, they said they were aware of the realities and threats of climate change (something I don’t take for granted). However, they said Murkowski has and always will support increased oil and gas development, although she also supports increased investment in renewables. It seems her opinion is that modern oil infrastructure will reduce direct impacts on the environment, and she thinks that is sufficient environmental protection. I understand but disagree with those arguments, and in the end I was just glad to hear that some people in her office knew what Alaska is facing in the future.
Feeling energized, I went to the next meeting with Ted Cruz’s office. We met with a staffer who was polite, but less receptive than those at John Cornyn’s office. He insisted that Cruz has always been supportive of science funding, he said he would inform Cruz of our funding request, and pointed to Cruz’s support of the new America COMPETES Act. We did not challenge him on this during the meeting, but in a follow-up email I mentioned the issues discussed at the Austin Science Advocates meeting on the COMPETES Act: that the initial versions of the bill contained language that would allow Congress to determine the funding level of each discipline within NSF (i.e. likely limit overall funding levels for earth and social sciences) and that the broader impacts were rewritten to include things like public health and national security, goals of the NIH and DOD, not NSF. As of this writing I have not received a response.
After lunch, we met with two staffers, one from Lamar Smith’s office and one from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. We met in Lamar Smith’s conference room. He is the chairman of the House Science Committee and also my representative in Texas. The room was decorated with science themed plaques and photographs, and also two bookshelves, where, alongside books such as Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot and many astronaut memoirs, there were books such as James Inhofe’s The Greatest Hoax and Brian Sussman’s Climategate. For a somewhat complete list, see here.
Beforehand, we had agreed on our talking points and during the meeting, we worked as a team to stress the importance of interdisciplinary science, how every discipline benefits from the others in good, competitive, innovative science, in order to emphasize support for climate and social sciences without directly suggesting anything about those disciplines. We emphasized this because the House Science committee hinted that they are beginning the process of writing a third COMPETES act, likely one in which they will again attempt to limit funding for earth and social sciences to handicap climate science and gun research as well as fundamentally change the peer-review process in the name of accountability and transparency. I talked about our issues with the most recent COMPETES act, but the staffer deflected my questions, insisting that the broader impacts have always included public health and national security and that they also include increasing international cooperation (for more on this, see our post about the COMPETES Act). She insisted that the goal of the broader impacts was not to make fundamental science more like applied science, but to get scientists to think deeply about the potential impacts of their work. In my follow-up email, I acknowledged that although politicians and scientists could agree on this goal, I thought having a specific, finite list of potential impacts actually really limits the projects that might get funded and makes scientists stretch the truth about the potential applications of their work. In the meeting, however, I did not press the point because as I talked red blotches were slowly creeping up the staffer’s neck and I did not want to be seen as confrontational. The primary issue we seemed to agree on was bringing more women into STEM. They are very interested in any ideas that might achieve that, if anyone reading this has any ideas, please contact me and I will put you in contact with the staffer.
At the end of the day all the teams gathered for a much needed happy hour. I felt I had learned a lot about Washington just from being there for a day (you have to own a lot of suits to work there), and I recommend the experience to anyone else interested in learning about federal science policy. If you are interested in participating, the website to apply is here. However, I am not sure I would attend again, as the goal of this particular visit was just to ask for money for NSF and I feel I did my part on that goal for now. I was surprised at how candid some of the staffers were, but they have so many meetings every day it is hard to know how effective one friendly meeting was. The more I learn about Washington and federal politics, the more I realize the best way to change things is just to get different people elected, not to attempt to change the ways of representative who disagree with you, so please remember to vote and get involved in your local elections!