Lab to Legislation

By Chris Dawson

Cornell Engineers use expertise to inform public policy.

If you happened to be scrolling through the Washington Post on June 9, 2015, you may have seen an online opinion piece titled, “Why social sciences are just as important as STEM disciplines.” The essay was written by Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering at Cornell, and it addressed members of the U.S. Congress directly, urging them to continue funding social science research at current levels rather than directing funds away from the social sciences and into engineering and the physical sciences.

Dean Collins’ exhortation to Congress exemplifies one method engineers have at their disposal for informing public policy. They can write an article and hope to have it published in a forum that will garner some attention and reach the target audience. In these respects, Collins’ essay hit the mark. Researchers in the social sciences and the physical sciences were discussing his article in many forums across the Internet. Lawmakers are known to read the opinion editorial pages of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. When the House and the Senate consider reauthorizing the America Competes Act funding the National Science Foundation, they will have heard Dean Collins’ voice.

A person wishing to inform policy can focus her efforts on swaying public opinion, on influencing policy makers directly or on becoming a policy maker herself. Cornell Engineering students, professors and alumni have followed each of these routes. Dean Collins is merely one example from a college actively involved in influencing everything from local water policy to international earthquake infrastructure standards.

Professor Thomas O’Rourke in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering served as President of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institution, helping to establish a government relations program for the organization, and made several presentations to staff members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, as well as the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. He has done similar work for the Office of the New Zealand Prime Minister, and has served at the local level as his town’s representative on a intermunicipal water commission.

Professor Stephen Wicker from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering has briefed the National Economic Council staff at the White House and testified to Congressional staffers about information network privacy issues.

Professors Mark Campbell of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Darrell Schlom of Materials Science and Engineering and Matthew DeLisa of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering have all served a two-year term on the Defense Science Study Group, a program of education and study that introduces outstanding scientists and engineering professors to the challenges facing national security, with application either as government advisors or in their own research. Professor David Erickson of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering will serve a two-year term on the group beginning next year.

Linda Nozick, director of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been a member of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) since 2011. The NWTRB is an independent federal agency created in 1987 to examine the technical validity of Department of Energy activities implementing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. As part of its statutory duties, the NWTRB reports at least two times per year to Congress and the Secretary of Energy on its findings, conclusions and recommendations regarding nuclear waste management.

From the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, professors Susan Riha and Art DeGaetano have testified before lawmakers in Albany, Riha as the former Director of the New York State Water Resources Institute and DeGaetano as Director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center. Professor Sara C. Pryor has served on the National Climate Assessment Development Advisory Committee and was also coordinating lead author of a chapter in the resulting 2014 report. Professor Rowena Lohman has briefed Congressional staffers on the work done by EarthScope—an NSF-supported program established to undertake a deep geoscientific exploration of the entire North American continent. Professor Natalie Mahowald is a lead author on the latest version of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which is used by policymakers around the world. Professor John Thompson is a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Mining and Metals, one of the councils that advise the World Economic Forum on critical global issues.

Associate Professor Chris Schaffer of the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering recently participated in a forum with U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko outside of Albany. The topic of the forum was the federal government’s BRAIN Initiative, and Schaffer was there to explain that greater funding is needed because a lack of scientific understanding has blocked the advancement of brain treatments for a variety of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and psychiatric disorders. Tonko is advocating for a $40 million boost in funding for the BRAIN Initiative for the next fiscal year.

There are others on the faculty of Cornell Engineering who have chosen the route Dean Collins took with his opinion piece in the Washington Post. Professors Claudia Fischbach, Chris Hernandez and Hadas Kress-Gazit are all currently Public Voices Fellows of the Op-Ed Project. The Op-Ed Project is a not-for-profit social venture founded to, in their own words, “increase the range of voices and the quality of ideas we hear in the world.”

Recently Kress-Gazit, who is an associate professor at Cornell Engineering’s Sibley School, joined with Marjolein van der Meulen, the McCormick Director of the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering, professor Paulette Clancy of the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and three non-engineering professors from Cornell to write an article for the independent news website The Conversation. Their article, called “Let’s face it: gender bias in academia is for real,” documents the many subtle and not-so-subtle biases affecting the careers of women in academia. It ends with a call for greater awareness in both the academic world and society at large of our conscious and unconscious biases.

Chris Hernandez, an associate professor in the Sibley School, has published an essay on Fox News Latino in which he encourages Mexican-American and Latino families, teachers and communities to take actions that will encourage more young people in these communities to pursue science, technology, engineering and math as a career. He has also written in support of research on debilitating medical diseases.

Associate professor Claudia Fischbach from the Meinig School published a widely read opinion piece in the Pacific Standard. The article, entitled, “Fighting the War on Cancer,” is a very public plea for cancer researchers, and those who fund cancer research, to include engineers more often in their work. “To broaden our understanding of the disease,” Fischbach writes, “interdisciplinary study between cancer biologists and engineers should become far more common than it is today.”

While writing an opinion piece for publication, there is no guarantee it will be accepted, widely read or impactful. Yet all three are more likely if the person writing has significant personal or professional experience in the field they are addressing. This is certainly true of the engineer authors at Cornell. Their by-line carries a bit more credibility because of the quality of the work they do and the place they do it.

Another approach to having a significant impact on public policy is to actually leave the lab and work in the policy realm for a while. None other than Ezra Cornell himself served in both the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate in the 1860s—as he was founding the university that bears his name.

Chris Schaffer has not run for a seat in the state government, but he has developed his ideas about engineers and policy from a unique position. “In 2012 I was chosen for an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Fellowship,” says Schaffer, “and I spent a year working for Representative (and then Senator) Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts.” Schaffer, whose Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Science Policy Fellowship was sponsored by the Optical Society of America and the International Society for Optics and Photonics, says there are two main goals of the policy fellowships. “These positions help scientists understand the policy-making world and they give scientists access to policy makers.”

Schaffer’s work for Congressman Markey was not limited to issues tied directly to science and technology. In fact, Schaffer helped prepare position papers and policy recommendations on topics as diverse as foreign policy, homeland security and nuclear nonproliferation in addition to science research funding and STEM education. Where Dean Collins tried to persuade from the outside, Schaffer thought it was important to learn about the policy game from the inside. “Very little of what the government does does not involve science in some way,” says Schaffer. “And most of what scientists complain about in terms of science policy is our fault. We don’t know enough about the reality of how policy is made. Scientists only come knocking at appropriations time and we throw each other under the bus to try to get our projects funded.”

Schaffer came away from his policy fellowship with lasting impressions. “My time in Washington gave me a profound respect for our system of government,” says Schaffer. “The United States does hold a special place in the world and has, on the whole, been a force for good. I was very impressed by the integrity and thoughtfulness of those I interacted with all along the political spectrum.” Schaffer believes that policy makers really do want to make good policy, and that scientists can help by better understanding the process.

In addition to lasting impressions, Schaffer came away with an idea for a way to introduce college juniors, seniors, graduate students and post-doctorates to the world of public policy. When he got back to campus, Schaffer created a new course he called Science Policy: Concept to Conclusion (BME 4440). It was offered for the first time in the fall semester of 2013 and has become a popular class. During the semester students hear from Cornell faculty and visiting government officials about how policy is made.

But the main focus of the class is the creation of a plan to address a key science policy issue. Students work in small groups to identify an issue they are interested in. They then spend the semester formulating a detailed plan to address the issue and implementing the plan out in the world. Students have produced technical reports, drafted model legislation, submitted comments on state or federal rulemaking processes, written legal briefs, launched public outreach campaigns and published opinion articles. “It is the most fun I have had teaching a course in my career,” says Schaffer. “It’s like I am running my own science policy NGO and we get to take on three or four new topics each year.”

So far, four students from the science policy class have gone on to win AAAS Science and Technology Fellowships. The look on Schaffer’s face as he reports this fact betrays how proud and excited he is that more young scientists are getting involved in the world of policy.

One of the researchers from Schaffer’s lab to spend two years as an AAAS Science and Technology Fellow is Dr. Catharine Young. Young, whose post-doctoral research in the Schaffer Lab examined the interactions between different cells in the brain in an effort to improve the longevity of microelectrodes used in neurally-controlled prosthetics, is currently placed at the Department of Defense. She works in the Threat Reduction and Arms Control division of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “This division…focuses on eliminating biological threats in partner countries,” says Young. “My experience as an AAAS Fellow has been nothing but exceptional.”

Young believes that by spending time immersed in the world of policy and its many complicated procedures, she has begun to understand the governmental approach to major global issues. She has seen that policy makers don’t always have the expertise they need when it comes to matters of science and technology. “The uniqueness of the AAAS Fellowship is that it attempts to fill this void,” says Young. “Agencies benefit by gaining fellows who possess scientific skills, knowledge and expertise. In return, fellows learn more about the policy-making process and often gain an entry into government positions.”

Salaeha Shariff is a Project Director with the AAAS’s Science and Technology Policy Fellowships in Washington, D.C. She is responsible for outreach and recruitment of potential AAAS Fellows, as well as for alumni engagement. She sees firsthand the impact it can have on scientists and on policy makers when the two groups are given the opportunity to work together in meaningful ways. “The knowledge, resources and networks that fellows gain during the course of their fellowships primes them to hold key leadership roles in government, non-profits, academia and the private sector, nationally and internationally,” says Shariff. “Fellows often take positions within the government after their fellowships.”

Shariff says is can be especially valuable for engineers to take time to immerse themselves in the policy world. “Engineers bring a unique perspective and insight to the AAAS Science and Technology Fellowship program and, in turn, they develop a new skill set that is invaluable to their professional development—in policy positions and in all other facets of their careers.”

Catharine Young has certainly been deeply affected by her time as an AAAS Fellow. “I am wrapping up my two fellowships, however, I will remain at my current office for another year as a Senior Science Policy Advisor for North and West Africa,” reports Young. “My time here has begun to shape my future career path and solidified my desire to work as a public servant.”

If you read the mission statement of Cornell Engineering you will find the following commitment: “to create a better future for all people through the application of innovative ideas and resources and the solution of important and complex global problems.” In the end, that is also the mission of effective public policy. When Dean Collins pens an opinion piece, or Nozick evaluates a plan for storing nuclear waste, or a doctoral student signs up for Chris Schaffer’s Science Policy Bootcamp, they are all working to bring Cornell Engineering expertise out into the world in the service of making it a better place.