April 16, 2004  


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 with a 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. 

Chris Roat (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 said.

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.”


The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is managed by Stanford University for the US Department of Energy

Last update Thursday April 15, 2004 by Emily Ball