Advocating for Science on Capitol Hill

Robby Goldman (Advocacy Committee Chair)

This past academic year, I had the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C. three times to learn about Congressional science policy and meet with Illinois Congressional staff members. From these trips, I have gained valuable experience interacting with Congressional staff (and occasionally, members of Congress), and came away with a better understanding of my representatives’ priorities and how certain science-based policies fit within their goals.

The objective of each of my trips was to encourage my Congressional representatives to support consistent federal science funding that keeps pace with inflation (corresponding with increases of roughly 4% per year). Federal support is necessary for sustaining critical, cutting-edge research projects, which are often multi-year endeavors. My own research team, the Volcano Geophysics Lab at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), has been improving methods for predicting when and where volcanic eruptions will occur, a topic of recent national interest thanks to the vigorous eruptive activity of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. Our research team’s efforts are guided by years of work conducted by our advisor, Dr. Trish Gregg, and her colleagues, and federal funding is necessary for sustaining many of the scientific discoveries that our team has and will continue to make over the coming years.

Strong and consistent federal science funding is also critical for supporting thousands of young scientists, like myself, across the country through research grants and fellowships. The volcano modeling research that my colleagues and I conduct at the University of Illinois, for example, is funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). In fact, three years of my graduate study will be supported by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Moreover, as a top (R1) research institution, the University of Illinois has been awarded the most NSF funding of any university for the last six years, which supports thousands of student and faculty scientists. Other federal science agencies that support geoscience research, either through direct funding or indirectly through instrumentation, include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Given the necessity of federal science funding for supporting the research that I and thousands of other UIUC scientists conduct, I was shocked and dismayed in early 2017 to see the drastic cuts that President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposed for numerous science agencies, including NASA (3%), NSF (11%), NOAA (16%), USGS (15%), DOE (9%), and EPA (31%). It was these proposed cuts, and my fear that scientific enterprise was no longer a national priority, that motivated me to visit Washington, D.C.—for the first time—and communicate my concerns to my members of Congress.

My first time visiting the Capitol Building (viewed from the east)

My first visit to D.C. took place in September 2017, when I was selected by the North-Central Section of the Geological Society of America to participate in the American Geosciences Institute’s “Geosciences Congressional Visits Days.” The first day of this workshop included an introduction to Congressional science policy and a Q&A panel led by two science professionals working in the federal government. The second day consisted of meetings with the staff of various members of Congress. Several dozen scientists participated in this workshop, and each of us were assigned to small teams of roughly 4 people for our Congressional visits. My experience meeting and learning from other politically engaged scientists was inspiring, and meeting with Congressional staff provided me with valuable experience in communicating my concerns and priorities as a scientist to my representatives.

My positive interactions with both scientists and Congressional staff motivated me to visit D.C. two more times this past spring. The first took place in March, when I participated in the AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering Workshop (CASE) as a representative of UIUC’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This workshop was a four-day event that allowed me to learn about Congressional science policy in even greater depth than in September. Our speakers included Bill Foster and Rush Holt, PhD physicists who have both served in Congress; several professionals working in federal science agencies; and Congressional science fellows working for members of Congress. In addition to its distinguished speakers, this event hosted nearly 200 student scientists from over 70 U.S. universities and research institutions! Though each day was busy, I met and talked with many of these students during our pre-workshop reception, workshop lunch breaks, and a post-workshop dinner.

2018 AAAS CASE group. Credit: Stephen Waldron/AAAS

On the final day of the AAAS workshop, I joined four other UIUC students and two Northwestern students in meeting with staff of Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) to advocate for research and development funding.

UIUC and Northwestern University students meet with Mark Copeland (center–Legislative Assistant to Senator Duckworth)

This would be the first of several occasions that I would meet with Lauren Aycock, a Congressional Science Fellow for Senator Durbin who conducted some of her undergraduate physics research at UIUC. Lauren knew first-hand the importance of federal science funding–her own research had been interrupted prior to completing her PhD due to federal budget cuts–and encouraged us to share stories of our research with the public and our representatives to increase awareness of its societal value.

Illinois cohort with L.A. Maggie Angel (far left) and Congressional Science Fellow Lauren Aycock (third from right)

As chance would have it, Lauren would be visiting our campus in late April to give a talk to the physics department about her Congressional Science Fellowship. As members of the Science Policy Group (SPG) at UIUC, Reshmina William (representing the College of Engineering) and I were able to organize a coffee meet-up between Lauren and several members of our group during her April visit.

UIUC SPG members posing with Lauren Aycock after coffee. Reshmina is second from the right.

Finally, I led a meeting between our UIUC cohort and Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL 13th District), to advocate for science R&D funding and describe the roles that our diverse disciplines play in supporting our Congressional district’s infrastructure, agriculture, and human health.

UIUC students meet with Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL 13th District)

I found it immensely satisfying to meet and share the importance of scientific research with one of my members of Congress. I was also heartened that Congressional support for federal science funding is bipartisan: my senators (both Democrats) and Congressional representative (a Republican) not only expressed support for this funding, but helped pass a spending bill—just two days after our meetings—that increased funding for most science agencies for Fiscal Year 2018! Of the six agencies that I listed previously—NASA, NSF, NOAA, USGS, DOE, and EPA—none received cuts to their total budgets, and only the EPA received flat funding (as opposed to an increase). Although I can’t claim most of the credit for this legislation, I feel proud to have played a small, yet valuable, part in defending federal science funding for this calendar year. My colleagues and I even had to brave a snow storm–on the first day of spring–to meet with our representatives, but it was worth it (plus, it made for a great selfie)!

Illinois cohort braving the snow before our Congressional meetings

My second visit to DC this spring, and third overall, took place in April, and served as my orientation to the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) “Voices for Science” program, for which 29 other scientists and I committed to organizing community events throughout the year. We are split evenly into two tracks: one geared towards communicating with policymakers, and the other towards communicating with the media. As a member of the policy track, I will be organizing events in Illinois that focus on science policymaking, such as hosting a town hall on renewable energy legislation or a workshop on effective letter-writing to Congressional representatives. Participants of the Voices for Science initiative were also grouped into regional teams, first to coordinate Congressional visits, and subsequently to discuss individual plans and progress in engaging members of our communities with science advocacy. I am part of the “IL-MI” regional team, which includes Rachel Kirpes, a PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Michigan, and Carissa Bunge, a Senior Public Affairs Specialist at AGU who grew up in Naperville, IL.

Participants in AGU’s Voices for Science policy track at Capitol Hill. Credit: AGU

The focus of the policy-track of the AGU workshop, like AAAS CASE, was to provide an in-depth introduction to Congressional science policy, particularly science funding. We learned that although the recently approved FY18 budget contained many increases in federal science funding, the President’s FY19 budget again contained drastic cuts to many science agencies. However, we were in D.C. at an apt time, when Congressional appropriations committees were discussing how to allocate federal funds for 2019. Thus, my AGU colleagues and I were tasked with asking our legislators to continue supporting federal science funding increases commensurate with inflation.

To prepare, we broke off into our regional teams to pitch our funding requests to AGU staff who acted as science-championing, science-friendly, and fiscally conservative members of Congress. Ironically, these practice meetings were more formal and challenging than my team’s actual conversations with Illinois and Michigan Congressional staff! Everyone we met with was supportive of our requests for increased science funding, including Lauren Aycock, whom I had met with just weeks earlier. Our meetings also touched upon the importance of educating policymakers on natural hazards and advanced Earth and space science through two Congressional caucuses.

Posing with Maggie Angel and Lauren Aycock outside Senator Durbin’s office

Additionally, I had the pleasure of meeting with James Chang, Science and Technology L.A. for Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) with a detailed background in volcano policy! Although I was representing Illinois that day, I had specifically requested to meet with James for three reasons: 1) I have family in Honolulu, and Hawaiian ancestry, 2) I would soon be conducting research investigating patterns in Kilauea’s eruptive activity with computer models, 3) I share my alma mater, Pomona College, with James’ boss, Senator Schatz. Although I did not have an opportunity to meet with the Senator himself, I had a very informative conversation with James regarding Hawaiian volcano monitoring and the Congressional Hazards Caucus, which educates members of Congress and their staff on natural hazards, including volcanic eruptions. This was a fitting conversation to have, considering the surge in eruptions from Kilauea volcano that commenced just weeks later!

Posing with James Chang inside Senator Schatz’s office

I have gained useful experience in science policy communication from each of my three visits to D.C. and Capitol Hill. For my colleagues who wish to visit the offices of their Congressional representatives—perhaps during AGU’s Fall Meeting—I have the following advice:

First, Congressional meetings are what you make them. Know your priorities, and tie your concerns to your own experiences as a scientist. These meetings are brief, and their structure is organized around what you, the constituent, choose to talk about. It may be intimidating to ask your representative or senator for something, but that ask is precisely why you are having a meeting in the first place. That said, your visit will have the greatest impact on the person you are meeting with, whether a policymaker or staffer, if you explain how your research and expertise benefits the public, particularly in your district or state. For example, I emphasized the importance of federal science funding in sustaining groundbreaking research at the University of Illinois. I also explained how my lab group’s volcanology discoveries can mitigate the risks posed by active volcanoes to tourists of the Big Island of Hawai’i, or provide more accurate eruption forecasts for the dozens of active Aleutian volcanoes that can erupt along busy trans-Pacific flight routes.

Second, be respectful of your representative’s time and opinions. Although Congressional debates may be partisan, your meetings with members of Congress or their staff should not be. As Representative Jerry McNerney (D-CA 9th District) explained during AGU’s pre-Congressional-visits breakfast in April, if a constituent made offensive remarks during a meeting, the Congressman would instinctively raise his defenses, precluding any meaningful discourse on policy. Conversely, engaging in polite and non-partisan conversation leaves open the opportunity for building a stronger relationship with your representative. In fact, Representative McNerney emphasized that people who know you are less likely to turn down your requests, either for meetings or enacting certain policies.

Third, be persistent. You can make a difficult ask without being rude, and you do not need to back down from your ask just to avoid an awkward pause from your representative or their staffer. Just make sure that you justify your ask by tying it to your policymaker’s priorities, whether they be for resilient infrastructure, a clean environment, or strong economy. Moreover, you should be persistent in maintaining relationships with the offices of your representatives after you meet with them. Always send follow-up thank-you emails to the people you meet with, reviewing what you discussed, what you asked for, and ways that you can be a resource for them. Over the long term, you can continue the conversation by providing your representatives with research updates or policy developments that you think would interest them. Eventually, your representatives may start reaching out to you to for advice on a specific piece of legislation! This will only happen, though, if you take the initiative to maintain a relationship with your policymakers.

Finally, you are part of an ever-growing community of scientists who are making their voices heard at all levels of government, from local to federal. As a result, there are plenty of resources for first-time science advocates. For example, AGU has a science policy website ( complete with resources for calling or writing your legislators, organizing a successful district visit, visiting your representatives on Capitol Hill, and more! AGU’s Public Affairs Team can be reached at if you have any questions that aren’t addressed on their website. Also, see if there are any science advocacy groups within your own community, such as my university’s Science Policy Group, that can more easily help you engage with policymakers. Or, see if you can find a group of people who would be willing to organize science advocacy activities in your own neighborhood! Regardless of what you choose to do, just know that you have a voice that you can use to benefit science, scientists and the general public here in the United States of America.

My most recent visit to the Capitol Building (viewed from the west). See you at AGU’s Fall Meeting!

May Newsletter


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Inform Committee Meeting
Help us organize lectures by science policy scholars and practitioners by attending our Inform Committee Meeting this Wednesday, May 9 from 5 – 5:45 PM. Please e-mail the committee chair in advance for the location on campus. Contact Sudharsan Dwaraknath at

Date: Wednesday May 9
Time: 5- 5:45 PM
Location: For more details, email

Union of Concerned Scientists Webinar Screening- How to Organize an Event that Makes an Impact!
Come join your fellow SPG members and learn how we can enhance our events and our group! The webinar will include discussion on the types of events that will help achieve our goals, get the attention of our elected officials, and have the most impact on federal or local science-based policies! Plus recruiting people for our events and ensuring that participants feel inspired and are able to stay involved.

Date: Wednesday May 16
Time: 6pm
Location: A446 CLSL

Please sign-up here so we have an estimated number for food/refreshments!
If you wish to screen remotely on your own you can register with UCS here.

Upcoming Celebration of our Graduating SPG members!
We are planning a celebration the week of May 14 to thank and celebrate our graduating SPG members! We’d like to hold a happy hour to wish them well on the next chapter of their lives! If you are graduating and want to take part please fill in your information here.
Please keep an eye out on Slack and Facebook for announcement regarding this developing event!

Date: TBA (week of May 14)
Time: TBA
Location: TBA

Policy Writing Game
The Science Policy Group will be hosting a summer policy writing game similar to a model UN activity in July 2018. Dr. Clifford Singer, the Director of the Program in Arms Control and Domestic and International Security at UIUC, will act as moderator for the event. SPG members will gather into groups, and will be presented with a scenario on which they must craft a very basic piece of science policy. Students will then debate and refine their crafted policy with the advice of the moderator as well as more experienced members of the science policy group. This event will give members an opportunity to explore the fundamentals and complexities behind policy writing in an informal and fun setting. Refreshments will be provided.

When and where: July 2018 (Location, date, and time TBD)

MRSEC event – The Intro: Connection is a Choice
Illinois MRSEC presents a plenary by an expert from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.
This interactive session introduces participants to general principles in how to craft short, clear, conversational statements, intelligible to non-scientists, about what you do and why it matters. The session consists of an interactive presentation and discussion on interpreting technical material using examples and analogies to illuminate unfamiliar concepts to your audience. This plenary will address problems and solutions in public interactions as well as peer-to-peer communication. Participants will be actively engaged in improvisation exercises and will practice clarity in speaking to non-scientists about their work.

Date: Friday May 18
Time: 1:00-2:30 pm
Location: 204 Loomis (Physics Interaction Room)

Join one of our committees!
All of our committees are recruiting new members! If you are interested in having an active role in planning SPG’s 2018 events, email us at for more details!

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Connection is a Choice

Illinois MRSEC presents a plenary by an expert from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. This interactive session introduces participants to general principles in how to craft short, clear, conversational statements, intelligible to non-scientists, about what you do and why it matters. The session consists of an interactive presentation and discussion on interpreting technical material using examples and analogies to illuminate unfamiliar concepts to your audience. This plenary will address problems and solutions in public interactions as well as peer-to-peer communication. Participants will be actively engaged in improvisation exercises and will practice clarity in speaking to non-scientists about their work.

Friday, May 18 at 1 PM – 2:30 PM

204 Loomis (Physics Interactive Room)

Advice from the Fellowship Workshop

On March 12, the Science Policy Group Professional Development Committee ran a Science Policy Fellowship Workshop with the Graduate College Office of External Fellowships. This workshop was primarily focused on the application process and an overview of the prestigious AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, with two former recipients of the fellowship presenting about their personal experiences during their time in the program. The event began with Dr. Karen Ruhleder from the Office of External Fellowships providing an introduction on some of the major science policy fellowships available, and then discussing the application process, deadlines, and some tips for writing personal statements tailored to science policy instead of scientific research. Then, former AAAS Fellow and current Professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, Dr. Gay Miller, gave a short presentation regarding her own personal experiences during the program. In particular, Dr. Miller was able to provide insight in to working with the USDA, as that was where she was appointed to work during her fellowship; she also provided insight in to the hurdles that you may face as a scientist first transitioning in to a role in science policy and government, as the pace and expectations are very different. Additionally, she touched on how she has adapted her teaching and career path because of her experiences as a fellow and gave high praise for the program, further encouraging those interested to apply. Following Dr. Miller’s presentation, Dr. Melissa Cragin discussed her experiences as a AAAS Fellow with a placement in the National Science Foundation Directorate for the Biological Sciences. Like Dr. Miller, Dr. Cragin had high praise for the fellowship program and was adamant that those interested should apply (and apply more than once if you are unsuccessful the first time). She also recommended that those are accepted for an interview ask plenty of questions of their potential employer in terms of the structure of the leadership in that particular office, opportunities for travel, and the number and types of projects that the fellow will be asked to work on, as those vary widely and can greatly impact the fellow’s experience. Finally, Dr. Cragin mentioned that some of the agencies hire on their fellows to stay after their term and you are able to network a great deal during the fellowship, so this can easily lead to a job opportunity.

Overall, the two presenters were very enthusiastic and motivating! They had only positive things to say about the fellowship experience, and encouraged anyone interested to reach out to them regarding specific questions. Additionally, they both were very interested in participating in future SPG events and were happy to be able to share their knowledge with us!

Springfield Trip

The Science Policy Group will be taking 12 students to Springfield on April 24th to meet with legislators to argue against HB 5134, a bill that would keep eight uneconomical coal plants in business by raising our electricity bills by $115/year. These coal plants, owned by Texas’ Dynegy Inc., emitted 32 million tons of carbon dioxide this year.

Attendees are expected to be available from 7:30am-6pm on April 24th, and should plan to bring money for breakfast and lunch. Business formal attire is also required (

Please note, due to limited seating, only members of the Science Policy Group can officially go on this trip as a part of SPG.

March Newsletter

View our newsletter online

How to Write your Representative

Want to make a positive impact on Congressional science policy, but unsure how? Come to our evening workshop and learn how to write a personalized letter to your Congressional Representative! The workshop will be led by J.C. Kibbey, Midwest Outreach and Policy Advocate at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Food and drink will be provided. More information here.

Date: Wednesday, March 7th
Time: 4:00-5:50 pm
Location: English Building, Room 108


The March primary elections are just around the corner! Your vote is crucial for positively impacting science-based policy. Early voting begins March 13th, the Tuesday before Spring Break, at several locations, including Illini Union Room 213. Polling places will be open every day from March 13th through March 20th. Voter registration instructions, voter guide, and polling locations will be posted on our facebook event page here.

Fellowship Workshop

Interested in learning more about national science policy fellowships? Come join us and previous AAAS Science Policy Fellowship recipients Dr. Gay Miller and Dr. Melissa Cragin for a workshop providing first-hand insight in to one of the premier science policy fellowships! We will also provide an overview of some of the major science policy fellowships, application dates to know, and tips on how to strengthen your application over the summer. More information here.

Date: Monday, March 12th
Time: 3:30-5:00 pm
Location: ACES Library Monsanto Room

Join one of our committees!

All of our committees are recruiting new members! If you are interested in having an active role in planning SPG’s 2018 events, contact Suds Dwaraknath ( – Inform Committee), Libby Haywood ( – Professional Development Committee), or Robby Goldman ( – Advocacy Committee) for more details!

Advice from Kacy Redd

Kacy Redd is the Assistant Vice President of STEM Education Policy at Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). Here are some great resources that she has to share about how to make the jump from PhD programs into policy or other nontraditional careers:

  • This posting on ASBMB has good advice for scientists transitioning to policy.
  • This article is for scientists interested in community management.
  • Lou Woodley has lots of blog posts on this topic here and an interview here.
  • There are some case studies are here.

Feel free to reach out to Kacy with any questions at!

New legislation and the purpose of witness slips

Keep reading to see some policy in action that relates to graduate students!

Daniel Biss is introducing legislation tomorrow (SB2546) that would expand the definition of a graduate employee to include RA’s and not just TA’s This means RAs would be legally allowed to unionize. They are having a hearing about it tomorrow morning at 10:30 in Springfield. If you would like to show support for this bill, fill out a witness slip online using this link (representing yourself, not SPG please).

Witness slips show a person or group’s position on a particular bill. They are a vital piece of the legislative process because, before a bill is heard in committee, the chairperson will read who has submitted witness slips and whether they support or oppose the bill. This helps inform legislators as to where people stand, allowing informed decisions when voting. Witness slips are a great and relatively quick way to make your voice heard in state government.

See everyone that has submitted slips here.

Here is a link to the bill if you would like to read more about it (Ctrl-F “research”).