Grad students lobby for research funding in Washington

A delegation of 23 graduate students visited members of Congress in March to lobby for increased federal funding for scientific research. Their visit to Washington marked MIT’s ninth year participating in the annual Science-Engineering-Technology Congressional Visits Day.

The graduate students hailed from 10 different departments, including four from Earth and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and five from Biological Engineering. Their visit was organized by the MIT Science Policy Initiative (SPI), a graduate student organization that promotes engagement between the MIT community and policy-makers.

“One office noted that I was the first graduate student they could recall coming to speak with them, and they appreciated the mere visit of a young scientist,” Alec Bogdanoff G said in an email to The Tech. He and the other students believe that their visit helped congressional members understand the human side of federally supported science research.

The students met with 51 personal congressional offices to discuss how federal funding of science research positively affects their home districts and the national economy, according to a press release from EAPS. They also spoke about more inclusive immigration policies to help maintain America’s STEM leadership.

The graduate students lobbied in support of two pieces of legislation: the American Innovation Act, which would increase federal funding for five federal research agencies by $100 billion over the next 10 years, and the Immigration Innovation Act, which would allow more visas for foreign scientists and STEM professionals.

The students met with 32 Democratic offices and 19 Republican offices, chosen based on the home districts of the participants, according to participant Laura Stevens G. There were a total of 29 House meetings and 22 Senate meetings.

According to data from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, federal R&D funding comprised 0.75 percent of the GDP in 2014, the lowest it has been since 1976 (the first year the data was collected). Nondefense R&D funding has remained at or below 2 percent of the federal budget since 1982. The Republican majority in Congress has proposed a budget for 2016 that would continue the sequestration cuts implemented in 2011, while the president’s budget would increase overall spending by 7.2 percent over the previous year.

Dillon Gardner G spoke about the effectiveness of the Congressional Visits Day as a whole. “The informal discussions between participants of different fields led to an increased understanding of the wealth of important interactions between science and policy,” said Gardner in an email to The Tech.

Gardner said that in comparison to previous years, the students more effectively communicated the importance of science funding to members of Congress. He also said that although most members of Congress have been supportive of science as a whole, the biggest change from Congress over the years was increased support for climate change policy initiatives.

Bogdanoff said that the MIT Science Policy Initiative provides ample opportunities for a strong group of students who are passionate about science policy and advocacy. “The scientific community needs advocates with strong science backgrounds to ask for increased and more stable science funding,” he said.