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During the summer of 2012, I worked as an intern for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. I went into the internship thinking that it would be a unique way to use my knowledge of science, but it turned out to be far more than that. After this experience, my perspective on science’s relationship to society has changed dramatically.
Currently, I am a junior at Grove City College (Pennsylvania) pursuing a double major in physics and philosophy. Physics has always fascinated me, and on top of tutoring physics and helping with our local SPS chapter, I have spent a summer internship and three semesters researching nanotechnology. But I also have strong interests in public policy and communication, cultivated through my experiences as assistant captain of the Grove City College debate team, as a content editor for my school’s journal of law and public policy, and as a contributing writer for the school magazine (when I can find the time). So when I set out to find an internship for the summer after my sophomore year, I wanted to find something which balanced my interests in physics, policy, and communication. I was thrilled to discover the SPS Mather Public Policy Internship.
The Mather Public Policy Internship is a program supported by Dr. John Mather (2006 Nobel Laureate in Physics for his work with the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite), the American Institute of Physics, and the Society of Physics Students. This internship sponsors two undergraduate Physics majors to intern for the U.S. Congress every summer. The purpose of the internship is to get physics students involved in public policy, thereby developing future scientists who understand policy as well as future politicians who understand science. The two 2012 interns were myself and Jonathan Morris from the University of Minnesota. The APS staff helped place me with the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (“The Science Committee,” for short) which is made up of thirty-nine members of congress and their staffs. The Science Committee is responsible for directing our national science policy and overseeing a number of federal research agencies, including the National Science Foundation, NASA, and NIST, in addition to parts of the EPA and Department of Energy. At first I was given small tasks such as preparing materials and testimonials for committee hearings, taking photographs at hearings, building a few databases for the committee, and assisting with administrative tasks (a.k.a. making copies, answering the phone, and making coffee). As the summer progressed and as the staff grew more confident in my abilities, I was commissioned to do real policy research and report-writing for the committee on topics such as NASA technology benefits, hazardous chemical injection wells, open access scientific publishing, and space-flight policy.
In addition to the work for the committee, some of the most memorable parts of the internship were what happened outside the staff office. Highly renowned and influential people visited the Capitol almost every day, and all it usually took to meet them was the initiative to start a conversation. As a result, I was able to personally meet two Nobel-laureate scientists, give a formal tour of the Capitol building, sit down at lunch with executives from major spaceflight corporations, have an article, “A Crisis of Perception,” reviewed and published by the editors of Physics Today, and attend a briefing by lead scientists on NASA’s Curiosity Rover project . The internship provided invaluable opportunities for networking, and I would encourage any physics student with interests in public policy to consider applying for it.
I learned a number of valuable lessons from this experience. First, I got to experience how public policy works up close, and not all of it was as I expected. For instance, I was surprised at how much work is handled by the congressional staffers instead of the members of Congress themselves. Congressmen rarely have time to write their own statements and questions, much less prepare bills for the floor or press-releases for the public. On a more disheartening note, I also observed members of congress on both sides of the aisle who seemed more interested in toeing their party’s line than addressing the issues at hand.
Perhaps most important, I came to understand why it is vital to have politicians who understand science, and scientists who understand policy. Most of the problems our country faces have technical aspects, and scientists frequently have valuable information to contribute; politicians must understand when scientific analysis is applicable. Furthermore, as the federal government is one of the largest funders of basic research, scientists need to be able to explain and defend their projects to Congress and funding agencies. Moreover, it is critical for politicians to understand the value of doing science in the first place. The prominent mentality among congressmen seemed to be that science was good because it stimulated the economy and helped society. While many scientific discoveries do help the economy, basic research like astrophysics and particle physics are difficult (if not impossible) to defend under such a mindset. Sooner or later, someone is going to figure out that decades of cosmology research has done very little to help the economy. The future of science depends upon it being funded for the right reasons, and this requires better communication between the scientists and the legislators.
While the Mather Internship was an incredible experience, it took a lot of hard work to reach this position and to succeed while in D.C. To other students who are looking for similar opportunities, here is some advice based on my experiences.
First, take any new opportunity that sounds interesting. I began to participate in competitive debate when a friend recommended it to me, and it has led to a host of opportunities (including the Mather Internship) that I would never have previously considered. Don’t box yourself into your specialty of study—there is a plethora of fascinating things out there that you have never tried. Second, work hard on the little things. That is how you will get noticed, and that is how you will get better at what you do. Third, I highly recommend getting to know the people who have gone before you. They nearly always have advice on how to succeed, including tips on how to avoid the mistakes they made. This goes not only for internships, but college classes, job applications, and graduate school searches.
The Mather internship inspired me to think deeply about how science—particularly physics—relates to society. In the near future, I plan to pursue graduate degrees in Physics. However, I hope to stay involved in the discussions concerning science in society. I am not sure where this will take me in the long run, but for now I hope to continue writing articles about science, policy, and the public. These issues are critically important for our future, and they most certainly deserve more attention.
Grove City College
 Allen Scheie, “A Crisis of Perception,” Physics Today (August 13, 2012), http://www.physicstoday.org/daily_edition/points_of_view/a_crisis_of_perception