Caltech Y Hosts Science Policy Trip to DC

Science policy interfaces between the needs of scientists and society. We rely heavily on government, or taxpayer, funding for our research; our society relies on us to continue discovering, innovating, and problem solving. Much in line with the Caltech Y’s mission to challenge students to be engaged citizens of the world, twenty of us spent the first four days of our winter break (Dec 16-19) meeting with policy makers in the US Capitol. Led by Catherine Xie ‘13, Bao Ha, grad student, and myself, we had a busy schedule packed with inspirational speakers.


Our trip began with an early morning flight, and we soon landed in the midst of meetings, meetings, and more meetings. We rented a house during our visit, and spent the evenings hosting Caltech alumni and science policy makers. We met John Andelin ‘55, former Science Advisor at the Office of Technology Assessment, and Mike Nelson ‘81, former Science Advisor to VP Al Gore. We had dinner with David Doll ‘11, Heather Dean ‘00, and Liz Santori – all three Caltech alums currently in their first few years in science policy roles. Liz and David had been on this trip a few iterations back, and, to those who are considering these careers, their experiences made entering the science policy world seem achievable.


We all got to know the Washington metro system relatively well, as we trekked from visits at the State Department to the National Institutes of Health, from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to the Pentagon, and, on our last morning, to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, right next to the White House.


We met with Caltech alumni in high places – people who had been in our shoes and were now making decisions and leading organizations with a major impact on research and our society. Arati Prabhakar ‘85, the director of DARPA, discussed the structure that makes DARPA different than many other research funding institutions and the moral implications of the research they choose to fund. Fay Peng ‘98, a European Country Director at the Pentagon, spoke of her work with Germany, and her efforts to work withthem to play a greater role in their own defense through, for example, more aggressive terrorism prevention abroad.


Jim Battey ‘74, director of the NIDCD (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders), and Mike Ledford, a Caltech lobbyist at Lewis Burke Associates, gave us two different perspectives on the distribution of scientific funding and the measurement of impact at a policy level.


Nearly everyone we met spoke about the importance of scientists, regardless of their involvement in policy, being aware of policy, how policy works, and how to communicate their science with the research funding taxpayers, and Mike Nelson ‘81 gave us important lessons he had learned in the latter. (It’s all about the bumper sticker. Think information superhighway and toilet to tap – short phrases that give people words with which to support your position.)


When we met with the Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State, Bill Colglazier ‘66, over breakfast, he highlighted the importance of engaged scientific dialogue across national and ideological boundaries to promote international collaboration on problems that affect everyone in our global community.


Finally, Amber Scholz, in PCAST, Peter Colohan in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Phil Larson, the space go-to-person in the President’s budgetary office, gave us a great overview of their jobs of translating scientific needs, results, and achievements into national policy and direction.


The students on the trip had a great time, and thoroughly explored contemporary science policy in our national’s capital. Some of us plan on careers in science policy, and more of us simply want to be aware. Many of us were international students, interested in comparing the systems in their home countries to ours. Tired and ready to sleep, all of us left DC with a heavy suitcase full of memories, advice, and understanding that we will take with us in our journey through the scientific and public world. Thanks to the Housner Fund for cosponsoring this program.