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Aline McNaull, AIP
Science education comes in many forms. There is the traditional formal method in which students sit in a classroom with teacher or lecturer in the front of the room or when students participate in laboratory activities in small groups and the teacher or professor circulate the room to work with students. Informal education can also be effective, whether that be through exhibits at a museum or websites and blogs. Science education can also take the form of science advocacy.
In the case of visiting congressional offices on Capitol Hill, the audience is typically around 25 years old and very bright. Many staff members have backgrounds (often graduate degrees) in political science, economics, and law. Some of them liked science and others were scared of it in their high school and undergraduate years; many may have never taken physics. Staffers are engaged in issues ranging from agriculture, transportation and energy production, to animal rights and Native American tribal policy. Somewhere in that varied list is science — not physics, but the broader topic of “science issues.” Though their backgrounds do not often include a PhD in a science field, they are still responsible for understanding issues relating to science.
While they are never expected to understand how radioactive decay produces neutrinos or how to mount thermally conductive material to a focal plane array, they are tasked with discerning whether their boss agrees with the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan or the Nuclear Energy Research and Development (NERD) Act (yes, a PhD physicist helped decide that acronym). To understand those policies, Hill staffers rely on the science community to answer their questions; they also need the science community to help them determine what questions to consider.
Staffers reach out to science societies to seek advice. They ask science societies to read over legislation text in order to ensure that there are no problems with the bill language, or they ask for suggestions on what would help scientists solve problems. In this context, science policy staff in the societies get a chance to educate Hill staffers.
Advocating and working with the Hill allows physicists to ask, as Scott Franklin did, “what is the topic of the day?” If he had asked me the same question at a different time, I might have said that we are looking at national helium shortages, rare mineral supplies, or weather satellite coverage. Topics change based on crises, shortages, national need, but more frequently the “issue of the day” in policy is driven by how the news media portrays science. Soon Congress will reauthorize many of the science agencies, including the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy Office of Science, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and National Aeronautics and Atmospheric Administration. Hill staffers, particularly those who work for Members of Congress on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, will be searching for information about the programs and research that is funded by each of these agencies.
It is an opportunity for physicists to educate policymakers and play a role in the policy process — to explain where they get funding, what programs they work under, and how they educate the next generation of scientists. Today’s “topic of the day” about National Science Foundation grant evaluation stems, in part, from the lay public having difficulty grasping why public tax dollars go to individual grants. Individual grants, whose titles are misunderstood, are being questioned particularly due to tight federal budgets. Grant titles using very technical terms are not as frequently called out but titles that use words that confuse the underlining merit of the grant are being questioned. In some cases, grant titles that refer to research being done in countries outside the United States have raised eyebrows and the public has questioned why the National Science Foundation is funding research conducted abroad.
While the scientific community can and does stand behind the merit review process and can likely explain the value of many of the grants funded by federal science agencies, this trust in the merit review process is not always understood by non-scientists. The public does not necessarily follow why or how research analyzing one topic can have implications for many fields or scientific disciplines. Educating Hill staff about this process can help them discuss these issues with their constituents.
As professors and researchers think about their work, it is important to consider how to explain the reason for receiving grant money and how federally funded research can have broader societal impact. This helps staffers on the Hill, the lay public who contact their Members of Congress, and the Members themselves to discuss what is the federal role in science research and how the US should continue to support science.
For more information about contacting Congress, please visit:
Aline McNaull is a Policy Associate at the American Institute of Physics (AIP).
Disclaimer–The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.