In Wisconsin, Students Not Content to Sit on the Sidelines

Samantha Anderson

Like many aspiring researchers, I have long felt science and technology are deserving of strong advocacy. For me, a passion for doing science and understanding its place in society began developing during my time as an undergraduate at a liberal arts university. In a biophysics course, our first assignment was to write about the history and social repercussions of the HIV/AIDS epidemic based on scientific review articles. That assignment helped me connect a liberal arts education to science, demonstrating that the lasting impact of research stretches beyond the lab.

Early in graduate school, I discovered Catalysts for Science Policy (CaSP), founded at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2014 by graduate students Monica Montano, Zulmarie Perez-Horta, Jose Rodriguez-Molina, and Caryn Wadler. The three main goals of CaSP are to provide professional development opportunities for early-career scientists exploring the policy sector, communicate the importance of science to the general public, and to educate the campus community about policy issues at the state and national levels that impacts or is impacted by their research. CaSP is part of National Science Policy Group (NSPG), a growing network of such groups across the country.

In 2016, Carlton Frost and I began our tenure as CaSP co-presidents with the goal of growing our membership and network. During that first semester, Fola Arowolo (CaSP treasurer) successfully applied for a travel grant for CaSP leadership to attend the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, themed “Serving Society through Science Policy.” The grant approval was announced shortly after the presidential election, a period in which many scientists—especially graduate students and post-docs—felt uncertain of their career prospects. Many of us were at a loss as to how best to advocate for the science we love while keeping our thesis work moving.

CaSP made it our mission to come back from that meeting with strategies for students to do something. The recap event, “Lessons for Scientists in the New Political Era,” was our best attended event up to that point. People came searching for a place to air their frustration and they left with the advocacy tools and insight we gained at AAAS.

Advice ranged from where to find information about current science budgets to developing communication techniques for interacting with policymakers. We channeled the general hope we felt in Boston and tripled the attendance at our meetings and events almost overnight.

Our goals have since expanded to include ideas from other NSPG organizations across the nation. Partnering with ASBMB, Arowolo initiated ongoing conversations with our state and federal representatives. After the dissolution of the National Commission on Forensic Science, CaSP’s new Policy Engagement Specialists Jenny Bratburd and Kassi Crocker, with the support of Wisconsin Institute for Discovery director Jo Handelsman, decided to take on a specific role advocating for state-level awareness and improvement of unreliable forensic science techniques.

Our work in this area is only beginning, but we have already connected with stakeholder groups in law, policy, and science. We are all incredibly excited to see how CaSP’s role in advancing the cause of science will progress.

Samantha Anderson is a biochemistry graduate student who studies membrane protein association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Alessandro Senes’s lab. She is committed to serving the scientific community through policy and plans on pursuing a career in science policy after graduation.

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Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.
Abraham Lincoln