Scientists on Capitol Hill
By Mason Inman
In late March, Chris Roat (BABAR)
took a break from lab work to go to Washington, D.C. as part of a
delegation to represent high energy physics. Before his first meeting
congressman, Roat was so nervous he couldn’t eat. It turned out,
however, that he found it easy to talk to most of the congressmen and
their staffers. “People are generally supportive of science, but a lot
of them don’t know about what we do,” Roat said. One point of the trip
was to educate congressmen about research in their district funded
through the DOE Office of Science.
(Photo by Diana Rogers)
The primary focus of this year’s trip was
to thank representatives who have been supportive of high energy physics
centers including SLAC. “It’s worth going every year,” Roat said, “even
if you won’t have a direct impact that year.”
Roat said his preparation for the meetings helped. All of the
delegates—about 30 graduate and postdoctoral students as well as
scientists from SLAC and Fermilab—had been given packets beforehand that
provided background on science policy.
“We had to learn a lot about the people we were going to visit, what
went on in past years, and how the budget gets determined,” Roat said.
Roat and Caolionn O’Connell (ARDB), another graduate student who went on
the trip, agreed that their experience as SLAC tour guides was also
helpful. “We’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to explain
our work to people with no scientific background,” O’Connell said.
It makes a big difference for policy makers to meet scientists in
person, according to O’Connell. “To put a face on the science they fund
is a good thing, and to show that we’re passionate about what we do. I
think that’s persuasive enough for a lot of them.”
The delegates appealed to people’s interest in science, avoiding
politics and questions of how to allocate limited funds. “I was
surprised by how supportive they were of basic research,” O’Connell
Michael Wilson (BABAR),
another graduate student on the trip, took the same approach. “I think
not trying to play politics, and trying to talk freely about what I do—I
think that’s the most effective argument,” Wilson said. “I like what I
do and I think it’s important. I just tried to convey that.” In his
discussions, Wilson also put research in a larger context. He pointed
out that labs such as SLAC are a training ground for scientists, and
that high energy physics is integral to many other areas of science.
Keeping the discussions open was also helpful, Roat said. “I try to make
it a two-way conversation where they can ask questions and tell you what
they know.” He added, “Finding out whether they knew anything about
science was a way to gauge at what level it was useful to talk with
them.” The trip was also an opportunity for the scientists to learn
about science policy. “I definitely encourage people to go,” Roat said.
“It’s a good way to learn something about your government.”
O’Connell agreed, adding, “It was a civics lesson, definitely.”