Science Policy at PhysCon: A Lesson in Communicating through Understanding

Meeting Notes

Science Policy at PhysCon: A Lesson in Communicating through Understanding

2019 Sigma Pi Sigma Physics Congress (PhysCon)

Robin Glefke, PhysCon Reporter and SPS Member, Georgia Institute of Technology

Led by Steve Gerencser and Anna Quider, PhysCon attendees tackle the subject of science policy. Photo courtesy of Anna Quider.

PhysCon 2019 kicked off with an icebreaker, the group working together to perform a fun reaction-diffusion experiment by propagating a human wave across the audience. While a silly exercise on the theme of the conference—"Making Waves and Breaking Boundaries”—it demonstrated our unity as physics students. Unity is especially important as we work together to bridge the communication gap between physicists and the public, and between physicists and other scientists.

My first workshop at PhysCon was Science Policy for Scientists, led by Anna Quider, assistant vice president for federal relations at Northern Illinois University, and Steve Gerencser, associate director of government relations at Brown University. I walked in with two friends from my university, and just as we sat down, one of them spilled coffee across the table. Over that spilled coffee, we bonded with our tablemates and eagerly learned about the intersection of science and the US federal government—notably, the effects of the 2018–19 government shutdown on science.

We were then directed to look at the proposed budget for government-funded research and allocate an 8% cut. We could cut all of the programs by 8%, eliminate one or more programs that totaled 8% of the budget, or do anything in between.
It often feels satisfying to scapegoat the US Congress for the lack of funding in important research areas, but this activity demonstrated the complexity of the decisions they face. Most science research is funded under the Commerce, Justice, and Science allotment of the US discretionary spending budget. This budget is separate from other slices of the budgetary pie, such as the homeland security or defense allotments. It also means that science research programs are competing for a finite amount of money from the slice of the budget that also supports transportation infrastructure, public safety entities, and other important areas.

Discussing what should be cut given the constraints was eye-opening, particularly in the case of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

I love astronomy. I initially studied physics because of my love of the stars. JWST will be an incredible step in humanity’s exploration of the cosmos, and if I heard its budget would be significantly cut, I would angrily shake my fist at the powers that be. However, during this activity I realized that it’s expensive. It has cost about half a billion dollars each year for the last several years from NASA’s roughly $20 billion total spending budget. Despite how much I value JWST, I chose to cut more money from this program than any other. Many other students did too.

Some students proposed that the federal science funding crisis could be fixed by cutting defense spending instead, even though some fraction of defense spending does go to research. It seemed that workshop attendees had found an enemy to rally behind. But we are a diverse community of people; near the end of the workshop, a student from the United States Air Force Academy stood up to speak. She asked with a true desire to understand, considering that her background shielded her from many of these opinions, why people felt such disdain for the current level of defense funding. This was an amazing response to criticism, and a very respectful discussion followed!

Removing the context from this discussion leaves behind a fundamental principle that can be utilized in other problems: the desire to understand and communicate. In conversations with climate change deniers and people who don’t trust science, there is often a lack of understanding that leads to conflict. Similarly, when we as researchers make an enemy of an entity, we may ostracize others and limit the progress of science. Sometimes, all it takes to combat this is a person who is willing to start a conversation, like my new friend from the Air Force Academy.