Team of grad students lobby congress for science funding

A multidisciplinary delegation of MIT graduate students travelled to Washington, D.C. in mid-April to speak with members of Congress about the value of federal funding in scientific research efforts.

Organized by the student-run Science Policy Initiative (SPI), the trip brought 24 graduates to Capitol Hill for The Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America’s Congressional Visits Day (CVD) to discuss with legislators from both sides of the aisle the effects of research and development on the districts they represent.  

The group spoke with congresspeople and staff members from the offices of 32 Republicans and 29 Democrats. Topics of discussion ranged from the impact of science and technology on the national economy to specific, local issues — many of the students met with staffers from their home districts, along with the representative for MIT’s district, Rep. Mike Capuano (D).

Of particular interest to the group were Republicans, who control Congress and who made strides last July by moving the 21st Century Cures Act through the House of Representatives. If passed, the bill would allocate $9 billion to the National Institutes of Health over a span of five years and establish a loan repayment program for researchers in health-related fields.

Mohamad Naija G, a delegate on this year’s visit, said congressional staffs recognize that “the government’s on the hook” when it comes to scientific advancement. Even if research does not directly contribute to the economy, hindering advances in fields like medicine may cost the government large sums of money in the future if programs like Medicare and Medicaid are used to pay for the treatment of potentially curable diseases.

This year, the team was also able to take into consideration President Obama’s budget for the 2017 fiscal year, which saw research and development funding increase by only 4 percent from 2016, when it made up the smallest portion of the budget it had in 50 years. Naija said that the emphasis of the students’ petitions was on multidisciplinary science funding, which has not yet recovered from the devastating 2013 federal budget sequestration.

In particular, many students based their conversations around a letter put forth by MIT, Harvard University, and Boston University requesting heightened funding for organizations like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and NASA.

While delegates in the past have focused on matters like immigration and healthcare, Scott Grindy G, who led this year’s visit, made it clear that the SPI itself does not take stances on specific issues.

“Our mission is to enable students to advocate for the legislation that they care about,” he said.

However, a common thread in discussions is the threat to the progress of innovation which reports like MIT’s “The Future Postponed” warn budget cuts could pose. Grindy said that a recent trend toward improved communication skills among scientists and engineers is helping to counteract this threat by giving researchers a stronger voice in influential policy decisions.

Grindy is reservedly optimistic about the impact of the visits. “It’s tempting to think of ourselves as Mr. Smith going to Washington and upending the establishment,” he said, before explaining that policy overhaul related to contentious issues like climate change would not happen overnight, nor at the hands of a small group of people.

Nonetheless, he stressed that while groups like the SPI have limited capabilities compared to more powerful lobbies, they can offer a “sort of brains and hard-work ethos,” acting as expert resources for congressional staffs which may not have the time to deal personally with every issue. 

Naija, for example, gave specific figures correlating science funding and GDP to the staff of Massachusetts’s 6th congressional district representative Seth Moulton (D) during one of his meetings. 

“[Major policy changes] are things that don’t happen over the course of one visit,” said Grindy. “The things that can and do come out of CVD are relationships.”

This is the tenth consecutive contingent sent by MIT to the annual CVD.