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Beckman Scholars Travel to Washington D.C.

Our three Beckman scholars: Cheri Ackerman, Alexandra Cok, and Sarah Tasker recently travelled with Professor Ron Blankespoor to Washington D.C. to learn more about science policy.  Ackerman explained “science policy is a broad term that includes everything from how the government prioritizes, coordinates, beckman scholarsand funds research efforts to how it uses scientific understanding to develop policies about conservation, chemical and food regulations, and energy. Scientists also need to understand the process by which scientific information is transformed from lab results to public policy. We need to find out how politicians get their scientific information and how scientists can help to make information more accessible for those outside the PhD-level scientific community – both voters and lawmakers.”

During their time in Washington, the students met with an AAAS fellow who works for the EPA in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and has a Ph.D. in neurobiology, as well as with Congressman Vern Ehlers (a former Calvin physics professor) and one of his senior staff members, Dr. Julia Jester, who has a Ph.D. in polymer chemistry. Through these meetings, Ackerman learned “how broad the range of government-sponsored research is and how important it is for each of those organizations to be coordinated. The White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) is responsible for making sure that research is prioritized according to the White House policy and coordinated properly. They prevent two groups from doing competing research on the same area and help to bring together groups that would benefit from collaboration. Politicians learn most of their science from information given to them by their senior staff. This means that if they do not have staff members who understand the science and can provide them with accurate, representative scientific data, they could make decisions based on limited data from less reliable sources. It is critical for scientists to make up a significant portion of senior staff members, especially as congresspersons try to make decisions about science issues such as healthcare reform and energy reform.”

When asked how this experience affected Ackerman’s views on her future career, she responded “all the research that I have done has been related to the medical field or understanding cells and biomolecules better. This trip allowed me to see a perspective and motivation for science apart from medicine. I enjoyed seeing some of the broader social impact of science outside of the area of health and healthcare. This trip helped me to see how much science is influenced by popular opinion and public funding. Even though science asks its own questions and propels itself in certain directions based on discoveries and results, science especially prospers when it is backed by money and social motivation. This trip helped me to realize the importance of making scientific information accessible to voters and politicians and the importance of promoting the advancement of science in the broader community. I also enjoyed talking to two women who were only a few years ahead of me in their careers. They were able to give me a sense of other career options that may be available after I earn a Ph.D. I think a lot of people, including myself, think that a Ph.D. in science automatically leads to a job in a university or research institute. However, this trip opened my eyes to a whole new spectrum of opportunities. Before this trip, I had never considered science policy as a possible career option, but after learning about the diversity of science policy jobs, I find the possibility quite intriguing.”