Influencing STEM policy in Washington, D.C.

From left to right: UB students Ramla K. Qureshi, Elizabeth Quaye, Julia Quebral and Benjamin Carlson

By Peter Murphy

Published April 17, 2019

"We have a growing gap between scientists and policy-makers," says Ramla K. Qureshi, a PhD candidate in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, "there needs to be frequent conversation letting them know why our research is important, and why it needs their continuous support."

Bridging the gap between engineers and policy-makers

“If I tell someone I’m doing research on fire safety engineering, they may be interested, but for fruitful engagement, they need to know why this research is important.”
Ramla K. Qureshi, PhD Candidate
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

Qureshi has experience in conversations between scientists and policy-makers after attending the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Association of Public Land-grant Universities’ Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop. Qureshi and a group of students from UB had a few opportunities to speak directly with staffers from the offices of congressmen and senators representing New York.

“I really became aware that the people sitting behind these policy desks are also humans, and a lot of them are trying their best to cater to their constituents,” Qureshi says, “we were told that about 5% of people in the senate are scientists, but just because they do not have a science-related background does not mean they are not smart.”

Prior to the meeting with staffers, AAAS held sessions to help participants learn about Congress, and more specifically, how to discuss science with senators and representatives. AAAS also worked with participants to understand the difference between science policy and science for policy. “we talked about how science policy has its place, but science that is backed by policy and policy that is backed by science are very different things,” Qureshi says.

Sean Gallagher, AAAS senior government relations officer, held one of the crucial workshops, according to Qureshi. He discussed the recipe of a successful Capitol Hill visit, including ways to speak to and connect with policy-makers, conversation styles students can use to succinctly introduce themselves and their research, and the different perspectives some staffers and congressmen may already have regarding scientific research.

“It was a long session broken down into different instrumental pieces. He asked us to focus on what the politician’s mindset may be,” Qureshi says, “You can go and talk to them about why your research is important, but they will always be more interested in something they are personally connected to. For instance, a representative may have a PhD in physics, but could have a blood relative with autism. In such a case, they may be more inclined to look into autism research. We need to look into the policy-maker as a person before we approach them for a conversation advocating science.”

Qureshi, fellow School of Engineering and Applied Sciences student Benjamin Carlson, Elizabeth Quaye, an undergraduate in Educational Leadership and Policy and Julia  from another SUNY university met with staffers from senate offices. During the meeting with senate staffers, they discussed their research for about five minutes. Qureshi and other UB students also met with their representative’s staffer. In each instance, the students looked into the congressmen’s background, science related bills they sponsored and different funding they secured to determine the structure of the conversation.

“We were a very diverse group: people studying cancer research, opioids, clean energy and engineering. We had to find a common denominator for effective communication, and that was the fact that we were all science and engineering students,” Qureshi says.

During the meeting with the representative’s staffer, however, Qureshi and other UB students were able to discuss things more specific to UB and the congressional district. The representative had recently announced over $2 million in federal funding to UB, and the students saw this as an opportunity to highlight their own work.

“We met with the congressman’s health policy advisor, and she wanted to be introduced to different forms of research currently taking place at UB,” Qureshi says.

Qureshi discussed the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering and its ARWU ranking. She highlighted previous funding the congressman had secured for research happening within the Department. Qureshi also described the diversity of the Department, and how that effects the entrepreneurship at, not just UB, but the larger Buffalo area.

“We explained that because UB is a diverse space, and because it stands out academically both nationally and internationally, it is an attractive place for people from around to globe to come and learn,” says Qureshi, “as a result, we have a lot of small businesses popping up here in Buffalo.”

Qureshi hopes to have more interactions like this, and to educate students and other researchers about discussing science with politicians. “If I tell someone I’m doing research on fire safety engineering, they may be interested, but for fruitful engagement, they need to know why this research is important,” Qureshi says, “How many people does it affect? They need to know the bigger picture. As PhDs, we work at a very granular scale most of the time, and it becomes difficult for us to communicate to the larger masses about the widespread implications our research can provide. The conversations that need to happen more frequently should be based more toward the impact of advancement in science, technology, engineering, and math fields on the masses.”

One way for students to think about the impact of their research at a larger scale is to write small blogs that cover the research at a higher level, and find ways to become a voice for basic research, according to Qureshi. Although the research field of PhDs is specific, students may find themselves exploring opportunities outside of their area upon graduation. This exercise could serve as a nice primer, and will help the students when they apply for grants and other funding.

About the AAAS

The AAAS advances science, engineering and innovation throughout the world. In order to achieve some of its broad goals, the organization offers learning, funding and other opportunities to graduate and undergraduate students. Visit this page to learn more about AAAS and the opportunities available to students.