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  • Caltech graduate students and SEPAC officers Katherine (Kat) Saad and Thomas Catanach in Washington D.C. for Congressional Visit Day.
06/04/2014 10:06:30

Science & Engineering Policy at Caltech

For proof that Caltech students are indeed motivated to emerge from their labs and classrooms to interact with the rest of the world, look no further than Science & Engineering Policy at Caltech (SEPAC). SEPAC is a student organization founded in February 2013 whose mission is to provide resources for future scientists to understand how social policy affects the sciences and how they can enhance the reputation of the sciences from the grassroots to national and international levels.

SEPAC began with conversations, informal and happenstance at first, among a couple of graduate students. It then moved to a biweekly group meeting: individual students selected a topic, provided a couple of articles for background, and moderated discussion. Topics have ranged from "aspects of science activism" to "the future of the STEM PhD." One recent discussion focused on the controversial question of congressional oversight of peer-reviewed grant proposals. Though scientists are generally wary of nonscientists deciding what type of research deserves federal funding, SEPAC members took this controversy as a jumping-off point to discuss how scientists can be accountable to the general public for the investment of their tax dollars while scientists' expertise is still used to determine appropriate research targets.

"The main goals of SEPAC are education and resource development, but we want to show students that they can have a wide range of involvement in science policy," explains Katherine (Kat) Saad, a graduate student in environmental science and engineering and the current president of SEPAC. "We're not advocating that everyone go on the Hill"—that is Capitol Hill, home of the United States Congress—"and become a legislative aide for science issues. We want to give people the opportunity to explore policy to whatever extent they find helpful and interesting. Just being a citizen scientist, where your primary focus is in the laboratory, but you're aware of funding issues or policy advising, that's fine. And sometimes it makes for better science. Knowing that your research has an impact can help to motivate and focus scientific work."

As SEPAC has grown, it has found a number of new outlets for its initiative. For example, SEPAC hosts Science Policy Luncheons in which science faculty from Caltech and other institutions discuss their policy experiences with small groups of undergraduate and graduate students. The most recent SEPAC luncheon was on April 10 with Susan Hackwood, the executive director of the California Council on Science and Technology.

On May 9, SEPAC sponsored an all-day science communication workshop aimed at helping students articulate the nature and importance of their research to nonscientists. The event was organized by SEPAC secretary Jennifer Walker, a graduate student in geological and planetary sciences. Training and practice sessions concluded with a reception at which workshop participants exhibited their new science communication skills to Caltech faculty and staff who were invited to attend. SEPAC hopes to make this workshop an annual event.

Last March, for the first time, Caltech sent students to Washington, D.C., for Science, Engineering and Technology Congressional Visit Day (CVD), an annual event sponsored by a group of scientific organizations, from the American Astronomical Society to the Biomass Energy Research Association, who gather to raise awareness of and support for federal funding of science, engineering, and technology research. "The member groups host a one-day workshop to review the dos and don'ts of speaking with congressional representatives," explains Saad, who attended CVD this year. "Then the following day there are arranged visits with different congressional offices where we advocate for science funding. We don't try to push specific policy points. Instead we talk about the importance of steady federal funding of STEM research as a key to maintaining American competitiveness and growing the economy."

Steady, sustained funding is absolutely central to scientific progress, says Thomas Catanach, a graduate student in applied and computational math, and outreach director for SEPAC, who also attended CVD this year. "When you have oscillations in funding, it's hard to plan for the future," says Catanach. "Setting up a lab is a long-term commitment. You need to know that you're going to be guaranteed funding for five or 10 years so you can develop research momentum and keep it going. This is especially important for graduate students because we're just starting our careers. We need to know that it is safe to invest ourselves in particular projects."

Another message that Catanach hopes CVD can deliver to policy makers is that science is not nearly as compartmentalized as they typically imagine, so it is necessary to have broad support for all the sciences. "For example," he says, "I'm working on algorithms that detect failures on the power grid. Many of these algorithms are inspired by techniques developed for earthquake early warning systems. So much of what we do is to take technology developed for one problem and apply it to another, which is something we want policy makers to know."

SEPAC's adviser is Cassandra Horii, an atmospheric chemist who is now the director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach launched in 2012 under the Office of the Provost at Caltech. "SEPAC has made a tremendous difference for students on campus, especially in recognizing that effective communication about science with the public, with policy makers, and with other scientists is integral to successful research these days," says Horii. "SEPAC is creating opportunities for graduate students to develop competence in a broader view of teaching, not only in the classroom, but as ambassadors for science to the public. This is crucial because these abilities don't form overnight. SEPAC's initiative and focus is inspiring."

Written by Cynthia Eller