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Caltech Y DC Science Policy Trip

Hey guys,

Finals are finally over. Five tests, 39 hours and 48 units later I am done with Fall Term. Now its off to Washington DC on the Science Policy Trip sponsored by the Caltech Y. The trip provides an opportunity to listen to talks and participate in discussions with people who determine governmental science policies and also those who actually do scientific work for government agencies. We also got to see all the memorials, monuments and museums along the National Mall. This post will focus on the speakers and topics that were discussed and there will probably be a following post that covers the other stuff I did in DC.

First, a few words about the organizations that make this trip happen and possible for all the students at Tech. The Caltech Y is an organization whose mission is to ‘enrich student life and challenges students to grow into responsible citizens of the world’. They are 100 years old in 2016 and are celebrating their centennial with lots of events on and off campus throughout the upcoming year. They have five pillars/areas of focus: Leadership, Civic Engagement, Service, Adventure and Perspective. In this vein, some of the activities they sponsor include making meals for the homeless at Union Station Shelter, a variety of Make a Difference day community projects, a Social Activism Speaker Series, Decompression (a night of food, fun, movies right before finals), tutoring for kids in the area, hikes and camping trips, world cultures fest, science policy lunches, India trip, alternative spring break and lots more. They are a super awesome part of Caltech, and it is really easy to get involved in, and even perhaps lead, the events they put on. For example, the DC trip has as a student leader, Isaac Fees, a chemical engineering graduate student. The Student Executive Committee oversees all Caltech Y programs and provides an abundance of opportunities for Techers to grow and develop in other areas of life beyond merely their scientific interests.

This DC Science policy trip is also funded partially by the Housner Fund, which I mention at least in part because I am a member of its Review Committee. There are many different funds available at Caltech available to give money to students to do lots of different things including Housner, Moore-Hufstedler (MHF), and the Don Shepard Fun Fund. The Housner fund’s purpose is to allow for students to pursue academically or career enriching activities, and they commonly sponsor trips for students to attend and present at conferences for example. MHF gives money for clubs and organizations to do things on campus, and the fun fund simply gives you 25 dollars to do something fun.

Now after that PSA, lets start talking about the trip again. This was the 10th iteration of the DC Science Policy Trip, and included the 200th participant in total. This year 19 of us came on the trip- 9 grad students, 8 undergrads, 2 international students. We stayed at the William Penn House, just a few blocks east of the Capitol building. The trip began on Saturday, 4am right after finals week ended, and we flew cross-country into Dulles Airport and got to our hostel around 5pm. We started off with a dinner session where we talked to Patricia Neal a scientist working for the Center for Naval Analysis, Heather Dean-part of the FDA and formerly associated with the NSF and the BRAIN alliance, as well as Alan Kwan- transportation analyst for the DOE. They talked to us about their roles in government as well as the paths they took from Caltech to their current posts.

The next day we had a joint session with the alumni association where we heard talks from France Cordova, director of the NSF, and Ellen Williams, Director of ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy). They explained the missions behind each of their organizations, and current problems their organizations seek to solve through their programs. Also part of their mission includes educating the citizenry about science in general, including regarding current problems and the solutions that research may uncover.

The goal of ARPA-E is to provide funding for energy research that is risky at this point and is unlikely to get investment from current private sector sources. These include building smarter energy grids, smarter cities, and developing new sources to meet our ever-growing energy needs. Some other projects, which were interesting to see highlighted, included the transformation of CO2 into reusable forms, such as formic acid which could be used as a precursor to fuels and other chemicals. I had just written a research proposal for my inorganic chemistry class about catalysts that are being developed to reduce the activation energy for that transformation so it was cool to see CO2 recycling mentioned as a national priority.

Dr. Cordova has had an interesting journey to her current post as director of the NSF. She began as an English major at Stanford before coming to Caltech for astrophysics. She demonstrated NSF’s importance in funding all areas of research as a 7.4 billion dollar organization. Big projects related to Caltech include LIGO and advanced-LIGO funding. Other projects that caught my eye, since I don’t care for physics too much, were the development of biofuels, and research into potential uses and impacts of nanoparticles. Gene editing technologies, and the implications that come along with it is also another issue that NSF needs to deal with, as the future turns into reality and policy makers need to grapple with the potential ramifications as scientists and engineers continually push forward the boundaries of what is possible. She also stressed how America is falling behind on research spending compared to many developing nations around the world.

During the night session that day we talked to Bill Colglazier, a science advisor to the Secretary of State. He emphasized the importance of keeping America’s place at the forefront of scientific development and engineering for national defense interests. He also discussed the potential of science as a tool for diplomacy, strengthening ties between nations as has been the case for US-China relations.

The following day we took a trip up to DARPA headquarters to meet with Arati Prabhakar, the director there. Her connection to Caltech includesbeing the first female Applied Physics PhD in Caltech history. Caltech women seem to be a pretty impressive bunch, especially when it comes to running this country. DARPA seeks to be a disruptive innovator, and as part of its mission statement it seeks to not only avoid being surprised technologically by our competitors globally, but also to surprise them. Pretty much they seem to be looking for many extremely innovative projects, but are extremely risky as well. They seemed like the real-life equivalent of Stark Industries. Below is a picture I was able to take before they confiscated our phones.

Later that afternoon we went to the AAAS and met with a Caltech trustee, Shirley Malcom, who is also head of education and HR there. This is the same organization that publishes Science magazine as well. She was focused on discussing science education, and improving it at both the grade school, secondary and undergraduate levels. It was also nice to talk to a trustee of Tech, and learn what they do, which from what I gathered is pretty much raise money and provide some guidance on the administration of the institute as well.

That night we then talked to Caltech’s lobbyist (who knew we even had a lobbyist!) as well as John Andelin, assistant director of the Office of Technology Assessment, and Rebecca Adler Misserendino, a former AAAS fellow who had just returned from the Paris Climate Summit. They had some interesting and varied perspectives to add to our image of the role government plays with regard to the science done in this country. Our lobbyist does a lot of work securing funding for not just Caltech but research universities in general and trying to limit the regulation that may come attached to those funds. The path taken by Dr. Misserendino was also interesting as she had her current job as a science policymaker in her sights even before she came to Caltech’s campus as an undergrad. She spent a summer in DC working an internship funded by the Beckman Political Internship program at Caltech. Finally, the OTA is an office that provided reports for Congress or the President on any and all scientific matters. The members of the OTA would research deeply an issue, topic or area of interest and distill it down for legislators to educate themselves by on them in a nonpartisan manner.

The trip came to a close the next day as we went right next door to the White House and met with some staffers in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. They play a role advising the President and bringing to his attention various issues that need to be brought to his attention and dealt with by the government.