When science meets policy: a grad student’s experience on the Hill

Every year the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America (ASA-CSSA-SSSA) hold a Congressional Visits Day (CVD) in Washington, D.C. during appropriations season. The goal is to have a strong presence of faculty, students, and crop advisors advocating for agricultural and natural resources research on Capitol Hill.

Stabenow Soils Award

KBS LTER grad Christine Sprunger presented Senator Debbie Stabenow with the Soil Science Excellence Award in Washington D.C. this March.

This past March, I had the opportunity to participate in the 2014 CVD. I was one of 18 students who received a Future Leader in Science Award, which included an all expense paid trip to D.C. Awardees were chosen based on our enthusiasm for science policy, scientific excellence, and record of communicating science to the public.

CVD was a whirlwind experience that took place over the course of two days. The first day was dedicated to learning about the appropriations process, advocacy training, and hearing from guest speakers. The director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, spoke to us about the importance of training the next generation of agricultural and natural resource scientists as well as the need for more farmers. We also heard from two American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Policy Fellows. This was especially useful for the grad students in the room—as many of us are interested in careers outside of academia, but are not sure what opportunities are available. CVD also coincided with National Ag Day, so we were able to participate in the “Farm to Fork Politics” Congressional event. There we heard USDA’s Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Krysta Harden and Senator Debbie Stabenow (MI-D) speak. They both promoted new USDA programs authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill that would help early career farmers and enhance agricultural research.

On our second day we split into groups and visited different congressional offices on the Hill. ASA-CSSA-SSSA worked hard to place one graduate student with a faculty member and a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA), presenting a “research pipeline” to policymakers, demonstrating how basic research is conducted by faculty and students and then brought to growers by CCAs. This illustrates the importance of research and how it is put into practice.

My group consisted of Dr. Ron Turco a faculty member at Purdue University and Steve Dlugosz a CCA for Harvest Land Co-op, based in Indiana. I felt extremely lucky to be grouped with Ron and Steve, as both were CVD veterans and had a lot of experience on Capitol Hill. In addition, they wanted to make sure that I had a good experience and made me feel comfortable during meetings. In total, we visited five offices including Senator Debbie Stabenow (MI-D), Senator Joe Donnelly (IN-D), Senator Carl Levin (MI-D), Representative Fred Upton (MI-6, R), and Senator Dan Coats (IN-R).

The meetings with legislators and/or staff typically lasted no more than ten minutes, meaning we had to get our point across quickly. In general, the group member who was the constituent took the lead during the meeting. The main goal for each meeting was to introduce ourselves and ASA-CSSA-SSSA and then talk about the importance of both intramural and extramural funding for USDA, Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), respectively. This is where it became important to interject personal anecdotes about how research funding affects our daily lives. The point that I brought up several times is that Michigan State University scientists heavily depend on USDA grants to conduct research that directly benefits farmers. I also mentioned that USDA grants provide job security for graduate students and technicians. We had warm receptions from both sides of the isle and people seemed genuinely supportive of agricultural research and promised to support both ARS and AFRI at the funding levels we requested.

Aside, from visiting legislatures on the hill, every year SSSA recognizes a member of congress for their dedication and commitment to agriculture and natural resources research. This year, SSSA decided to award Senator Debbie Stabenow (MI-D) with the Soil Science Excellence Award for her role as chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, where she was crucial in passing the 2014 Farm Bill. Since I was the sole Michigan constituent and a student from MSU, I was asked to present Senator Stabenow with the award.

When I was first asked to present the award, I couldn’t believe it. My first thought was, “Oh my goodness, what meaningful thing can I say to a Senator?” After thinking about it more, it became clear that I wanted to stress how important her role was in passing the Farm Bill and that ASA-CSSA-SSSA is grateful for her continued support of agricultural research. It was a wonderful honor to present Senator Stabenow with the award and it was a pleasure meeting her and her staff.

I am extremely grateful to ASA-CSSA-SSSA and their Science Policy office for putting together such an amazing event. I applied for a Future Leader in Science Award because I wanted to learn more about science policy and understand the role that scientists can play in shaping policy. I left D.C with more experience communicating science to non-academics and a greater understanding of how science policy is put into practice. I also gained valuable insight on what it might be like to work on the Hill communicating science to policymakers.

Most importantly, I left D.C. with wonderful memories and new connections. Through CVD, I was able to meet so many great people from across the country representing several sectors of agricultural and natural resources research. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to network and talk with ASA-CSSA-SSSA leadership, as well as make new friends. Perhaps the best part of all was meeting so many students who shared similar interests and had a common goal of learning more about science policy. I look forward to staying in contact with the people that I met and hope to see everyone in Long beach, CA for our annual meetings in November!