MIT’s Science Policy Group Model Goes National

May 19th, 2014

National Science Policy Group founder Samuel Brinton at Congressional Visits Day with Senator Tom Harkin, from Brinton’s home state of Iowa

National Science Policy Group founder Samuel Brinton at Congressional Visits Day with Senator Tom Harkin, from Brinton’s home state of Iowa

A few years ago, an MIT student group dedicated to the intersection between science and public policy spawned a national science funding advocacy network. Now, led by an MIT student, that network is bringing things full circle by catalyzing a national consortium of science policy groups.

The national advocacy network, Stand With Science, dates back to fall 2011, when a few MIT students sat anxiously discussing the sequester that loomed over the federal budget. Nuclear engineering graduate student Samuel Brinton says he and his classmates Michael Henniger and Nathaniel Twarog, all members of MIT’s student-run Science Policy Initiative (SPI), knew graduate students were in a perilous position: fewer NSF grants and dwindling research opportunities would block thousands of would-be scientists from earning their graduate degrees. “Whenever science funding is on the block,” they realized, “it’s students’ voices that need to be heard.” And so they founded Stand With Science and wrote letters for two consecutive years, urging Congress to protect science and engineering research funding. Thanks in part to the persuasive videos they posted on YouTube to spread the word, Stand With Science gathered more than 10,000 signatures.

While those dreading sequester got a temporary reprieve in December 2013 thanks to a two-year budget deal, harsh cuts will soon be back on the table. Meanwhile, Brinton says, “We didn’t want to lose Stand With Science’s strong voice in DC, but we wanted to do more than advocacy.” It turned out that students at other universities were hungry for science-and-policy context of the kind provided at MIT by SPI. So Stand With Science has mobilized its network to bring students from 30 schools (and counting) into a new consortium called the National Science Policy Group (NSPG). Some members are from universities like MIT and Georgetown with well-established, well-funded science policy clubs; others, such as a medical student from the University of Iowa, want help starting such a group from scratch.

NSPG hosts a monthly video conference and Brinton hopes that, increasingly, established SPI-type groups will use this connection to coordinate their activities (banding together, for example, to invite speakers to their region). For now, a major function of the video conferences is to share advice with nascent science policy endeavors. The most important activity for such a group, Brinton believes, is to practice “sitting down and having a conversation about your research in terms others can understand”—and then relating your research to issues in the news. “We have the conversations about the technology, but not always about the societal implications,” he notes.

Such chats need cost no more than a cup of coffee; travel is a bigger hurdle. NSPG members from around the country met in person for the first time in DC this past March for Congressional Visits Day, forming a delegation of 30–40 students from 12 universities that was distinct from MIT’s own large delegation. Stand With Science chipped in on travel costs for some students from schools who didn’t yet have a funded group, drawing on a $10K prize it recently won for its second video.

With such a solid foundation at Stand With Science’s native university, why go national? “Because we started at MIT we have the power of legitimacy,” Brinton believes, “but because we expanded beyond MIT we have the power of credibility. We are not just the voice of one school.” Involvement in Stand With Science and NSPG is not limited, for that matter, to students (Brinton will continue to lead both after he graduates this spring), nor, he emphasizes, to a partisan viewpoint. He recalls that when Stand With Science’s letter first gained traction, its cofounders turned down opportunities to join forces with larger advocacy organizations heavily backed by certain political demographics. No doubt they’d have gathered far more than 10,000 signatures if they’d gone that route. But Brinton says the choice sparked a realization: “It wasn’t about how loud the voice was—it was about how invested the voice was. Stand With Science never became a chain letter. It was always person-to-person-to-person. That’s exactly how the National Science Policy Group has grown, too.”

Visit Stand With Science’s website for news and announcements about the new National Science Policy Group.

Watch the videos Stand With Science made in 2011 and 2012.

Read more about the Science Policy Initiative in the Spring 2014 “Discovery Issue” of MIT SPECTRVM (“No Future on the Sidelines”).

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