My Day on the Hill
This week, several hundred scientists – astronomers, chemists, biologists and engineers from across the nation, descended on Capitol Hill to lobby for science. We asked for sustained and predictable federal funds for scientific research. We voiced our worry that deep cuts in grants would destroy a generation of scientists: that research is not a faucet that can be turned on and off, because the well at the source dries up. We brought a personal face to the projects we were working on.
What did I learn? Our visit began with a briefing at the AAAS auditorium in Washington, DC. The Office of Science and Technology from the White House gave us the executive branch perspective by breaking down the budget into entitlements and discretionary spending, and showing us the thin slice of pie that went to Federal R&D. Then we got a Congressional perspective from both the House and Senate committees on Science, Space and Technology. These career administrators were scientists themselves, very much “on our side”. The next day was a blur of individual visits to offices of senators and congressmen from our states, efficiently organized by the Biophysical Society whom I was representing. The deal was that we spoke to staffers, and the staffers spoke to the elected members of Congress. We handed out folders full of statistics, talking points and projections. We shook hands, took pictures and exchanged cards.
Was it worth it? In the long run, yes. Maybe. Like the democratic process, visiting Congress is both our right and responsibility. I left with a better understanding of how Congress runs, and hopefully, made some contacts. It’s going to be easier to write to my elected representative the next time I’m called upon to lobby for science.
Was it fun? Definitely, this was an unforgettable experience. Senate offices are posh! Marbled halls, deep carpeting, brass-studded heavy doors. The House? Not so much. Congress is run by 20-30 somethings: smart but poorly paid, staffers put in long hours and typically don’t last more than a year. It was fun to spot faces: there was Sen. Barbara Boxer rushing past us, Rep. John Dingell leaning heavily on his cane, while another senator saw off some fund raisers at his door.