Last week we hosted Dahlia Sokolov, a UW graduate who now works as the Democratic Staff Director for the Research and Science Education Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. In this position she is currently more on the “policy for science” divide of her title, though her talk dealt with two stories that reflect different aspects of her time working with Congress.
The first of these was more of the “science for policy side” where Dahlia described how ended up overseeing nuclear energy policy as the Bush administration was trying to scale up research on nuclear fuel reprocessing. Her scientific background (despite not being directly related to nuclear physics) helped her recognize that a lot of the claims about this work were not practical. This reflected this importance of having scientifically literate people in a position to help make decisions.
The second story dealt with the “policy for science” side, describing her work revising the “Broader Impacts” requirements of National Science Foundation grants. These requirements are popular with many people as a way to ensure scientists working with taxpayer money have a more immediate impact for the general population. However it’s common among people writing the grants to treat this section less seriously and rely on standard boilerplate language to say they’re fulfilling requirements. Dahlia described how the goal of the recent reform was to add some meaningful requirements while not being overly prescriptive in how to meet them and to develop ways to evaluate the effectiveness of these requirements. This also led to some further discussion during the Q&A about how people may try to meet these requirements. While some people are very good at interacting with the public, this kind of direct contact isn’t a good fit for all scientists. There’s the obvious alternative of relying on grad students and post-docs, but this still won’t necessarily be a good fit for all labs. Another alternative Dahlia pointed out is to have scientists work as consultants for educators or others where their expertise may be useful but not need direct contact between a scientist and the public. She also emphasized the need for institutional support and that it may be necessary to use the grant budget to fund these activities effectively.
A thread that came up throughout the talk was changing attitudes in Congress towards science. At the beginning Dahlia acknowledged that she identifies with the Democratic party, but doesn’t see herself as a partisan, but focus on being able to compromise to get things done. This reflects the fact that she started in Congress working in the office of Sherry Boehlert, a moderate Republican. Since then the party has changed enough that former Rep. Boehlert would have a difficult time being elected now. Along with this change she has seen the relationship between members of Congress and scientists become more adversarial, which she found to be frustrating. She thought part of this change in relationship was due to the lower prestige the Science Committee seems to have among the current members, a difference Brian Baird also recognized when he spoke with us last year.
I was glad we had the chance to hear from Dahlia about her experience in the other Washington and how her background as a scientist had helped her.