In the fall of 2011, I had just started my graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and Technology and Policy Program. I undertook joint study in Nuclear Engineering and Technology Policy because as the son of a Three Mile Island community survivor, I understand that policy implications of misunderstood technologies can have drastic effects. I believe the nuclear energy sector must learn to communicate the actual dangers as well as the benefits of its product or it will not be able to compete against public sentiment with alternative sources of energy in the future.
My time spent in classrooms talking about the basics of nuclear physics had prepared me for the tough challenges of communicating with Congress on issues where complexity is the enemy and simplicity is key. But I’ll never forget the day I learned about a scary concept known as “sequestration.”
From a Letter to a Movement
As my friends and I sat around the table at MIT we recognized that this financial decision by a political body would have devastating effects on our current research, our careers, and the students who would come after us. Due to sequestration, the National Science Foundation will offer 1000 fewer research grants to promising graduate students. The National Institutes of Health will offer 650 fewer grants for early career researchers. These are just a few examples of how sequestration has decidedly fallen on the backs of the young talent entering the science and engineering research pipeline.
It was for this reason that we decided that, as graduate students, we had no choice but to respond. We hoped that we could urge the so-called Super Committee, otherwise known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, to address the growing challenges of the country’s debt without sacrificing the significant benefits that federally supported research brings to the economy and society. Maybe, just maybe, these leaders would want to hear from students who would be drastically affected by their inability to come up with a cooperative agreement on a fiscal plan for the nation that didn’t depend on blind, across-the-board cuts.
We wrote a letter. That’s really all we did. We wrote a letter that was simple and stated that among other things,
“America’s science and engineering graduate students need your help. Our country is on the precipice: with US finances in a desperate position, your upcoming decisions will determine the shape of our nation for decades to come. We urge you to seek common ground in Congress to preserve the indispensable investments in science and engineering research that will drive our nation’s prosperity for generations.”
We started sharing the letter with our peers at MIT and quickly realized that graduate students lacked their own voice in policy on a national level. It was then that we made a video where this letter was verbalized and the faces of graduate students from across the country could share how sequestration would harm their pivotal research from nuclear engineering to neurobiology. The video went viral, and I instantly found myself, along with two co-founders, leading an organization of over 10,000 individuals wanting to do one thing: Stand With Science.
Stand with Science (SWS) has changed since fall 2011. We now connect science policy advocates from across the country and across the globe with a common aim: support of federal science and research funding. This has included Valentine’s Day campaigns with pictures showing why students love science, and op-ed article training for local and school newspapers to explain why research funding is a necessity.
We realize the challenges are immense. But then again, qualifying exams for a PhD aren’t the easiest things in the world either. Groups like UCS and their work in the Science Network make these challenges easier. The resources are there to provide opportunities to inform the public and influence policy makers.
Sequestration opened the eyes of many students and scientists just like me to the fact that we all need to share our passion for our research in Washington and with the public. As future scientists, we are tasked with reminding everyone that innovation delivers and, if given the funding to keep researching, we are America’s best hope for a bright future.