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An Early-Career Astronomer’s Experience at AAS CVD 2017

Wednesday, April 5, 2017 - 10:37

This guest post is from Julie D. Davis, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

—Heather Bloemhard, Bahcall Public Policy Fellow

This March, I had the opportunity to participate in the annual American Astronomical Society Congressional Visits Day (CVD). Along with 14 fellow scientists from across the country, I spent three days in Washington, DC, getting an intensive crash-course in science policy and tackling Capitol Hill. The experience was a whirlwind but absolutely fascinating and very worthwhile. I was able to expand my horizons beyond academia, branch out of my comfort zone, and do something tangible for science in an uncertain political climate.

Before ever arriving in DC, there was already quite a bit to do in preparation. After an introductory webinar from the AAS policy experts, we were sent forth to arrange meetings with our respective Congress members — both senators and a representative. Calling the congressional offices seemed quite daunting, but with a few iterations of emails and calls over the course of a week, I successfully pinned down three meetings. I would be meeting with staffers for my two senators — Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) — as well as my representative himself, Mark Pocan (D-WI, 2nd District). This was the first of several surprising learning experiences. I had never realized that one could simply call their congressional office and request to meet with a Congress member or staffer.

After scheduling my meetings, I began researching my Congress members and thinking about what priorities I should convey in our conversations. Though I was very excited by the prospect of the upcoming visit, I was also beginning to feel nervous. As a second-year graduate student, why should anyone listen to me? Digging through government websites and reading about legislation, I felt very out of my depth.

I arrived at the AAS headquarters in DC on Monday afternoon for a half-day workshop on science communication strategies and conversations with agency representatives. Representatives from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and NASA told us about their various roles in the astronomical sciences and the state of policy affecting each. Dr. Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA, gave a passionate defense of space telescopes, with particular emphasis on the nascent (and therefore politically vulnerable) WFIRST project. Hearing these people speak was very inspiring and gave a better sense of what we were in DC to accomplish.

Tuesday was a full-day training session for exactly how we would execute our meetings. My previous trepidation concerning what I would be speaking about was eased significantly. We were introduced to the political landscape by Jennifer Greenamoyer, Senior Government Relations Liaison at the American Institute of Physics (AIP), and given tactics for how best to communicate with staffers and Congress members. It was surprising to learn that the majority of staffers are roughly equivalent to graduate students, spanning the same age bracket (22-28) and similarly low salary levels. It suddenly became much less intimidating to know that I would mostly be speaking to people at a similar stage of their career. Armed with this knowledge and a newly focused message on federal support for science, it was time to actually take on Capitol Hill.

Wednesday morning, we arrived early at the Senate offices. Together with my team from the Great Lakes region (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana), we began our day at a “Constituent Coffee” with an Indiana senator. The coffee hour is more casual than the meetings we would have later, allowing the senator to meet with many visitors at once by mingling in the crowd of constituents. It was fascinating to see the variety of interest groups all meeting with their Congress members, from coal-mining unions to philanthropy groups to a beauty-pageant winner. When the senator came by, we quickly gave our pitch and a picture was snapped while shaking hands, a disorienting process that took less than three minutes. We followed up with the staffer in charge of science for the senator, which was a much more relaxed affair giving us the first real field test of our message.

With each consecutive meeting, we improved our pitch and our teamwork. It was an adaptive process to learn how to effectively convey what we do for research, how it ties into federal funding, and what we want from Congress members in a single 30-minute meeting with someone with no science background. The staffers were all interested and engaged, but only one out of nine we met with had any science background at all. It was interesting (and somewhat distressing) to see how many completely disparate topics the staffers were responsible for. For example, a staffer with the science portfolio might also be responsible for advising their Congress member on transportation, commerce, defense, and housing policy. The breadth of knowledge they must have some passing familiarity with is incredible.

The highlight of the day was my meeting with Representative Pocan. Besides the fly-by encounter with the Indiana senator during constituent coffee in the morning, we had only been able to meet with staffers. With the last meeting late in the afternoon, I was lucky enough to get the representative himself. I was a little nervous, as meeting with the actual Congress member seemed very official! However, Rep. Pocan was incredibly friendly. He was very enthusiastic about the astronomy outreach we do at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and hoped at some point he could come to our historic observatory with his astronomy-loving husband. As an LGBT astronomer myself, his candidness was incredibly meaningful. Interacting with a person at the highest levels of government who was also openly LGBT felt so significant. The whole meeting was very perspective-shifting, redefining my idea of Congress members as abstract names on ballots and TV screens to real, approachable people.

Karna Desai, Representative Mark Pocan, Julie Davis, Vivienne Baldassare

On the whole, our meetings with the offices of outspoken science supporters and those who are less so were all positive. It was an excellent opportunity to hone my research “elevator speech” and really think about my science on the most abstract level — why our society should care about basic research. The staffers emphasized that they need scientists to communicate with them more. Providing data points and anecdotes they can attribute to a constituent and use to defend or critique legislation is very important. I realize now that, even as a young scientist, my opinion holds weight that I did not previously appreciate. I will make it a point to maintain the contacts that I made during my time in Washington, and go forward much less daunted by the prospect of making my voice heard.

For my fellow scientists, I want to stress that it isn’t so hard to get involved. Calling your congressional office in support of or against current legislation or budget proposals is not so scary, and it takes very little effort. Many of our senators and representatives are willing allies of basic research science who could really stand to hear our voices. If we are to sustain our work, we need to challenge ourselves to look outwards from our research and at the bigger picture. Science needs strong advocacy, and we are well-equipped to do so if we just reach out and get involved.

Julie D. Davis
University of Wisconsin, Madison
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