Firing On All Cylinders

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Sunday, July 19, 2020


Paul McKinley

It’s hard to believe we only have a few more weeks left in the internship -- somehow the summer has flown by, even in our remote setting. Nevertheless, the past week was pretty packed and the week ahead looks to be similar. Last week we had both a full committee hearing as well as a couple of smaller subcommittee briefings. I got to help out a bit with some of the questions for the full committee hearing on public health and equity impacts of extreme heat and COVID-19 which was pretty exciting. 

I have multiple concurrent staff assignments at the moment which are serving as great sources of exposure to both legislative draft work as well as investigative policy research. What’s especially interesting to me is the role of the Science Committee as a focal point for so many different stakeholders in academia, industry and nonprofits. It’s like the one-stop-shop for everyone in science looking to take the next step in their respective work. In general, it’s just a great way to see how science and policy interact.

That leads me to the highlight of this past week for me, which was the interns’ conversation with Dr. John Mather, the project scientist on the James Webb Telescope, and founder of the Mather Policy Intern positions (surprise surprise). It was fascinating to hear Dr. Mather’s perspective on James Webb and astronomy as well as the discipline of physics more broadly and our positionality as students within it. It was also reaffirming to hear the motivation behind the Mather Policy program in his own words, as a means to expose undergraduate scientists to the science-policy interface early in their education. It is true that many opportunities exist for career scientists to gain policy experience through fellowships or certificate programs, but as Dr. Mather reiterated, fewer of those opportunities exist at the undergraduate level. 

I am someone who is interested in both science and policy, and while I am confident I would like to continue working in the sciences, I am still unsure to what degree I might be interested in working in the policy realm in my career. What I have gathered thus far from this internship, and indeed as expressed by Dr. Mather himself, is that regardless of the amount of science policy work in one’s career, understanding the dynamics between the two fields is important for all scientists. In addition to being a source of funding and research support, government serves as one avenue through which scientists can affect change to benefit the public. That statement is idealistic to be sure, and change is often slow, but I do feel it underscores the importance of effective science communication as a necessary dialogue between our peers or colleagues, the public, and the decision-makers in Washington D.C. With that, I’ll end this post with a quote from Erwin Schrödinger, in the hope of giving this perspective some corroboratory credibility:

“If you cannot - in the long run - tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless.”

-Erwin Schrödinger


Paul McKinley