May 1, 2019

Catalyzing Change: One Scientist’s Experience During the Catalyzing Advocacy for Science and Engineering (CASE) Workshop

Posted by Caitlin Bergstrom

Meredith Richardson is a PhD Candidate in Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.


Thanks to AGU and its initiatives for connecting science and policy, last month I had the opportunity to attend the Catalyzing Advocacy for Science and Engineering (CASE) Workshop hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC. The workshop was a 3-day crash course in how Congress works. We learned how legislation is passed, federal agency budgets are made, and the points of intersection of science and policy on the Hill.


The workshop began on Sunday evening with a welcome from Toby Smith, the VP for Policy at the Association of American Universities. He taught us the history of science policy in Washington and the importance of understanding that the cultures of science and policy are two very different beasts that future science policy advocates must learn to master. Following the introduction, we were given the opportunity to mingle with current and former CASE participants and the AAAS Government Relations team. I quickly learned that the group of people in the room was not comprised of your typical scientists. Although we were from various scientific backgrounds, everyone walked into that room with a similar mission: find out how to use my research to make a difference in the world. This workshop turned out to be the perfect opportunity to achieve this.


Monday morning’s agenda was comprised of a welcome from Rush Holt, the CEO of AAAS, and an overview of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). This session was our first look into how science initiatives are treated in the executive branch. Later we were introduced to the federal budget process followed by an activity in which we split into teams representing both chambers of Congress and defended our budgets to determine the final budgets for the year. This was a very meaningful exercise, as it showed us just how hard it is to compromise while also making sure the agreed upon budget would pass back in our respective chambers. In the afternoon, we were treated to a talk from Judy Schneider, Specialist on Congress from the Library of Congress. She not-so-gingerly described how Congress functions day-to-day, divulging the history of committees, the priorities of members, and, of course, the politics of it all.


On Tuesday, we welcomed two panels: “How Congressional Offices and Committees Operate” and “Federal Agency Perspectives”. These panels presented us various career options for scientists in the federal government and the general lifestyle differences associated with working in the legislative and executive branches. Lastly, we were prepped for our Hill meetings with some advice for communicating with members and staff. To help us relate to congress members, we learned that the three main factors influencing their decisions are media, personal convictions, and constituents. We perfected our elevator pitches – a necessity for any scientist – to prepare ourselves for quickly relaying our research and motivations in the meetings. Finally, we were ready for our Hill visits!


Since I grew up in Tennessee and I am a current PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I chose to meet with the Legislative Fellow for Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander and Representative Bill Foster of Illinois. Representative Foster has a PhD himself, so he was able to relate to my research and experiences as a graduate student. Due to my research interests, I also was able to meet with the majority staff on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The science staff members were very inviting and willing to share their day-to-day responsibilities and work successes. Getting a behind-the-scenes perspective on policy-making in Congress was very intriguing and motivating for my future career.


Overall, I was very impressed by the entire trip, from the relatable AAAS Government Relations team members to the support of AGU and its Public Affairs Director, Liz Landau. This trip confirmed my interest and desire to work in science policy in Washington. I believe I can make a difference in legislation by translating scientific outcomes to real-world issues and communicating these ideas to congressmembers as well as the general public. AAAS and AGU helped me figure out that this is how I can make my difference.