‘Putting a face’ on science funding, Lear reflects on congressional visits experience

A guest commentary by Kristen Lear (University of Georgia), 2016 ESA Graduate Student Policy Award recipient

GSPA winners with NSF Director

2016 ESA Graduate Student Policy Award recipients (l to r) Samantha Lynn Werner (University of New Hampshire). Brian Kastl (University of California), Jessica Nicole Welch (University of Tennessee), Kristen Lear (University of Georgia), Timothy Treuer (Princeton University), and Matthew Pintar (University of Mississippi) pictured with NSF Director Francé Cordova (center) at the Coalition for National Science Funding exhibition on Capitol Hill.

As a 2016 ESA Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA) recipient, I traveled to D.C. in late April for three days to receive hands-on exposure to the interface between science and policy. This was a departure from my “day-job” as a graduate student at the University of Georgia studying the conservation of an endangered pollinating bat species in Mexico.

The other five GSPA recipients and I spent the first evening of this jam-packed two-day experience representing ESA at the Coalition for National Science Funding reception on Capitol Hill, where scientists representing their professional society or university showcase their research that is supported by federal funding. Usually “higher-up” members of ESA get to do this, but because the CNSF reception happened to fall on the dates of the GSPA trip, we had the unique opportunity to participate. We staffed a table for ESA and talked with visitors, many of whom were Congressional members or staff, about our research and ESA’s work. As a recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship for my PhD research, I can personally attest to the importance of federal funding of scientific research. Dr. France Cordova, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), stopped at the ESA exhibit.



On our first full day, we got a crash-course in how federal science policy works, with guest speakers from the National Science Foundation, the Ecological Society of America, and others involved in the science policy arena. Next, we split into our geographically-paired teams to practice for the next day’s Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) Congressional Visit day meetings, where we would be thrown into the ring (aka Senate and House offices) to discuss the importance of continued federal funding for NSF. After some discussion among Team GA-MS (four graduate students from Georgia and Mississippi and a Team Leader), about how to approach our Hill meetings, we were as prepared as we could be for the real thing.

The following morning we gathered on the Hill, dressed in our fancy business attire, and proceeded to meet with a total of seven House and Senate and offices. Many of our meetings were with the staff of the Members, but our group was lucky enough to get to meet with some of the Members themselves: Representative Jody Hice from Georgia and Senator Roger Wicker from Mississippi. During our meetings we asked for $8 billion for NSF in the FY2017 budget. This may seem like a crazy amount of money, but when you consider that federally-funded basic science research has led to the creation of the internet, Google, and Doppler radar, the money we put into research now is an investment in our future. Given that we were meeting with Members from quite conservative states, many of our visits ended with the sentiment that “They support science and research, but that our current national debt requires that we focus more on other issues.” While our visits to these offices may not have elevated the issue of federal funding of scientific research to one of their top priorities, I am certain that our presence on the Hill and our “putting a face” to the benefits of federal support of science funding was a positive experience for all of us.

Looking back on the experience a month later, I am immensely thankful to ESA for giving me the opportunity to get a better look at what science-policy work looks like and how I can potentially fit policy-related work into my career, even if not in an “official” capacity. I don’t know if I will go into science policy once I finish my PhD, but I am better armed for contributing to policy discussions no matter where I end up. So thanks ESA, and the other 2016 GSPA recipients, for an amazing experience!

Click here to listen to Kirsten Lear’s Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast interview.