Washington Days 2 and 3

Day 2 started slightly later than Day 1, with an 11 am meeting at AAAS with their Public Policy Director Ginger Pinholster. I was particularly interested in their programme of science and technology fellows, post-doctoral researchers who spend a year working in government agencies or Congress. Several of the people I met on Capitol Hill has started out as these Fellows and it seems to be a great way of integrating science and policy – there are now 2000 alumni and about half are working in Washington DC in one way or another. Maybe it’s something we could emulate, either through Marie Curie or the Science and Society Programme. We also talked about AAAS’ science communication activities (apart from Science magazine). They have developed a tool-kit to help scientists communicate what they do to the public and they also hold workshops and seminars for those working in universities on such issues (Public Information Officers). They also have a mass media fellowship programme to put scientists in newsrooms. Recent changes she had seen in the science communication envrionment were: a shift away from print; and a move towards science issues being covered by generalists.

After a brief lunch, I headed to the Department of Education. The people I met were perhaps more about the science of education rather than science education (if you see what I mean) but it was a fascinating discussion notwithstanding my fairly low level of knowledge of the subject. If we want to know why the US is better than us at the tertiary and beyond education of scientists then “follow the money” – the US spends more than double per student compared to the rest of the G8. The design and delivery of education is highly decentralised and so there are perhaps more parallels with the EU than one would initially think – so perhaps we can manage to get our act together to deliver the education we need.

My final meeting of the day meant my first foray outside the DC area, into Virgina to visit the National Science Foundation. I met with Jeff Nesbitt, their director for Legislative and Public Affairs. A key person to talk to and we really covered the ground. His approach to communication has been to focus on things that resonate with the public, rather than promoting individual projects. There had been a shift in recent years and the NSF was now more rigorously evaluating the aspects of projects addressing issues such as public engagement and media communication. He felt it was a question of providing the back-up or justification for scientists to do this kind of outreach. He was very optimistic about the future for science in the US, where he foresaw budget increases in the future and a shift no matter who was in the White House this time next year. He felt this was driven by industry who rely on the scientific community (universities, funded by i.a. NSF) to do the basic research that drives innovation. I asked about student trends, picking up on the conversation with Susan Butts on Day 1. He said that the data didn’t bear up a view that people weren’t staying after their doctorates. But what wasn’t clear-cut was who they were – quite possibly the brightest and best were going home. There was clearly an international trend, with NSF looking at opening offices in India and Pakistan, to add to those in Beijing, Paris and Tokyo. Jeff was brilliant to talk to about these issues. I feel I let mysefl down a bit with some of my questions, which were a bit simplistic, but to be perfectly honest, at the end of a day like that, your head is spinning and you tend to ask easy questions just to give yourself some time to think!

Today started badly. It’s a long story, but basically, it involves a bag of things to send to Philadelphia and the US Postal Service website giving inaccurate information about a) where their offices are and b) what time they open. So I ended up having to take a bag of clothes and documents to my series of meetings at the Department of Energy – not conducive to giving the impression of an emerging leader (as Gil would say!)

For one reason or another we started late (I was there with Hassan) and so things got squished. We got the rundown on climate change, ITER, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and their international policy in our respective regions. Finally we met with Paul Dickerson, Director of the Office for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energies. I suppose the interesting stuff to come out of the morning was the acknowledgement that the US had come late to the climate change politically, but has been active in research terms for 30 years. They have done scenario modelling, much like the WETO report we published last year.

After a little break (and a trip to the Post Office!) I went to the Marian Koshland Science Museum. which is linked to the National Academy of Sciences, and I’m not sure the interweb has space to write up everything we talked about! Suffice it to say it was fascinating. The MKSM is an attempt to create a science museum focussed on adults and students and directly linked to on-going research. So something different. It’s a small space with a strong web presence and exhibits focussing on active research issues of public interest – such as climate change, obviously, infectious diseases and drinking water. The museum is also used as a research space, providing data sets on various issues. The work internationally and have sent exhibits to Spain and Singapore.

The final meeting was with the Council on Government Relations, a body that represents research universities. We focussed again on Bayh-Dole/technology transfer issues, and it was interesting to hear the university side of the debate. Not that there was much said in contradiction to other discussions of this topic. The people there backed up Jeff Nesbitt’s comment that the NSF funding process led companies to focus much more on the transformative end of research, as they felt basic research was covered. They were less optimistic on future budgets than the NSF, as they didn’t see much room for manoeuvre given the spending profile of things like welfare and medicare. Like in Europe, there had been and continued to be a debate about whether publicly funded research should stay in the public domain. But there were two main arguments for the Bayh-Dole approach. Firstly public agencies have proved to be fairly useless as developing inventions developed in their programmes and 100% of nothing is still nothing. Secondly the investment needed to develop and invention into a commercial product usually dwarves the initial public investment. And this was the universities talking!

So, all round a top day. And I’ve now left the warm embrace of my fellow Fellows, and struck out on my own in Tennessee!

I hope people are enjoying reading this and that it is giving you some idea of what’s going on here. As you can tell, if I thought this was a holiday, I was very wrong! What with the preparation for the meetings, the meetings themselves and then the follow-up, it’s pretty much taking up the whole day from waking to bed (I’m writing this at 11.30!).

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen and European Union official, who lives in Brussels again after 6 years in London and 8 in Melbourne. My blog(s) reflect my interests in the EU, yarncrafts, organisations and dog ownership.

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