Taken from http://blogs.plos.org/scicomm/2017/11/30/scientists-and-policymakers/

By Helena Lucente, Ph.D. Student, University of Utah, Cancer Research

The March for Science was a turning point in science communication. For the first time, scientists and science supporters were part of a movement to advance science education, communication, and promote science in policymaking. The current administration has threatened the scientific enterprise in this country in a number of ways, including:

  • Proposing a budget that would cut funding to federal science and medical research institutions
  • Appointing science deniers to positions of leadership
  • Withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement

The anti-science political agenda was a call to action for scientists to get out of the lab and into the streets. The passion that motivated me to pursue my PhD is the same passion that inspired me to get involved in science communication and policy. As a scientist, I would have the opportunity to give back to the community and impact lives. Discoveries made in the scientific world today can be translated into clinical treatments for patients and new knowledge for aspiring students tomorrow. I joined the University of Utah specifically because they had created a dual degree program (Med-into-Grad Program) to train basic scientists in medicine and translational research, so they could bridge the understanding between research and medicine.

With the change in the political climate and the public outcry for science in 2017 I felt galvanized to do something to give back and help. Science communication and policy was away for me to bridge understanding this time between scientist, politicians, and the community. I enrolled in communication training through the STEM Ambassador Program (STEMAP).  With the help of this program I approached Utah state representatives and discussed the role scientists can play in decision-making. I met with Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (D) and Representative Edward Redd (R) to get a bipartisan perspective on science in government.

To me, the worlds of science and policymaking seem far apart in culture, language, and ways of taking action, so I felt anxious in the waiting room of Representative Chavez-Houck. My expectation was that legislative priorities would leave little time to speak with a graduate student. These notions were quickly dispelled; she spent an hour patiently explaining the unique challenges legislators face and how scientists can get involved in government. In fact, I learned that Representative Chavez-Houck was as passionate as I was to involve scientists in lawmaking. She introduced me to Representative Edward Redd (R), a medical doctor who approaches his own work as a legislator with a keen understanding of how informed legislative decisions benefit from science. This meeting gave me insights on scientific culture (for more on this, see my post on the American Society for Cell Biology blog) and a bipartisan perspective on science in government. The policymakers felt the community viewed scientists as isolated and unapproachable.

Talking with Democratic and Republican leaders taught me what each party values. I learned the importance of shaping an argument that speaks to the values of both parties and their constituents and how, even with different values, they had the potential to reach the same conclusions. For example, a political agenda that greatly impacts scientists and Utahans is transferring ownership of public lands to the state. A scientist may advocate for protecting and preserving these ecological treasures by keeping them as public lands. However, that scientist must appeal to all politicians not just those who support environmental conservation. If a politician values balancing the budget, then a scientist could appeal to their economic desires. They could explain that the debt the state government may incur by maintaining public lands could far out way the financial gains they would expect to make from tourism/recreation, oil, or mining causing financial instability. It was refreshing to learn that, at the state level, representatives of different political parties with differing values could reach the same conclusion and had a strong respect for the contribution of each.

Meeting with policymakers taught me a lot about scientists’ role in the government, and I wanted to share what I learned with others who are interested in becoming more involved. For other scientists who wish to interact with legislators, I have three pieces of advice.

  1. Understand legislators’ priorities.

Legislators must consider multiple values when they make decision, so scientific values must be weighed along with the values of their constituents. Prior to meeting with a legislator, scientists should learn the priorities of that legislator and their constituents. Many legislators have a webpage where you can view their voting history and bills sponsored. Some have a newsletter you can sign up for.

  1. Be objective

It is important that scientists remain non-partisan when presenting information. Legislators may dismiss valid scientific research presented if it is framed in a political context. One very powerful example of what happens when science becomes politically charged is when former Vice President Gore became the face of global climate change. Climate change was no longer viewed for its scientific merits, but as a liberal agenda. People who disagree with his political ideology may dismiss the valid scientific research he presented. If scientists present their data directly to lawmakers, objectively and regardless of political affiliation, politicians are more likely to consider their conclusions when making decisions moving forward.

  1. Build relationships

Most importantly, trust is built overtime. Scientists need to meet their representatives and establish a relationship, so that legislators feel comfortable calling on them when making decisions. It is best to contact representatives when the legislator is out of session because they will have more time to meet. After I had established a relationship with Representative Chavez-Houck over multiple meetings, she invited me to two events for bringing STEM businesses to Utah and promoting STEM education. She identified me as a scientist who was concerned about science policy, advocacy, and education, and offered me opportunities to connect with other policymakers and constituents on these issues.

Thus, although I came to these legislators without a specific advocacy agenda, I was able to build relationships with legislators that led to a working relationship and real opportunities to provide scientifically sound insights into decisions on science education for youth in our state. With a relatively small investment of time – less than ten hours for preparation and meetings – I had a small, but real, influence on bridging science and society. My scientific pursuits will likely take me away from Utah in the future; however, I will take the important lessons I have learned here to continue to follow my passion to give back by engaging in my community and investing in my local and state government.

 

About Helena Lucente

Helena Lucente wants to bridge the gap between science and society through improving science advocacy, policy, education and communication. She is pursuing her Ph.D. in Oncological Sciences and M.S. in Clinical Investigation at the University of Utah. She can be reached on Twitter at @HelenaLucente1 and via email at Helena.Lucente@hci.utah.edu.

https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/11/14/563130814/heres-how-the-new-tax-plan-could-hurt-graduate-students

The new tax plan introduced by House Republicans could have negative implications for universities, graduate students and those with student loans.

Many grad students — especially in Ph.D. programs — receive tuition waivers in exchange for teaching classes or doing research. Under current law, that money isn’t taxed as income. But the new bill calls for those tuition waivers to be counted as income and subjected to income taxes.

That means graduate students would be paying taxes on money they never receive.

Kelly Balmes is finishing up a master’s degree — on her way to a Ph.D. — in atmosphere and sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Balmes, 24, is from Chicago, so her out-of-state tuition is $30,000 a year. It’s paid for through grants; money she never sees.

The university pays her a yearly stipend of about $30,000 in exchange for her work in research and as a teaching assistant. That’s considered minimum wage in Seattle — about $15 an hour.

In 2016, she paid income taxes on her teaching stipend and ended up owing the government $2,334.

If the tax bill passes, the grant that covers tuition will be viewed as additional income. If the numbers remain the same, Balmes’ total income before deductions becomes $61,398 — nearly double what she filed last year.

She would owe $7,488, about $5,000 more.

“This makes graduate school unattainable for anybody not already very well off,” Balmes says. “It also creates a diversity problem, which graduate STEM programs already have.”

What else will be affected if the bill is passed:

  1. Endowments: The bill would levy a tax of 1.4 percent on net investment income for well-endowed private colleges. After an outcry from some universities, the language was adjusted so the tax would apply only to well-endowed colleges with $250,000 or more in the bank per full-time student.
  2. Student loan interest, tuition reductions and education assistance: If you make less than $80,000 and are paying back your student loans, you will no longer be able to deduct up to $2,500. Also, employers who cover some of their employees’ college costs would have that money taxed.
  3. College tax credit consolidation:Three tax credits — American opportunity tax credit, lifetime learning credit and Hope scholarship credit — would be consolidated into one credit. This would include a $2,000 credit for families spending money on college tuition, books and supplies.
  4. Coverdell Education Savings Accounts: The bill would phase out Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, which allow families to invest money for college without the funds being taxed.
  5. Tax bills for death and disability:The House plan would put an end to forgiving student debt because of death or disability.

Of the 145,000 students in graduate programs receiving these tuition waivers, about 60 percent are in STEM programs, according to the Department of Education.

If the House bill passes, Balmes might have to reconsider getting her Ph.D. and stop her education at a master’s, she says. “It’s upsetting because it wouldn’t really be my decision.”

She hopes that the Senate’s tax plan will be passed instead because under that one there are no changes to tax credits or tuition waivers.

Colleges and universities have also raised concerns about the House bill.

Carnegie Mellon University, a private school in Pittsburgh known for programs in science and technology, is one of the many schools — including Boston University — speaking out.

CMU sent faculty an email saying it was monitoring how the bill would impact students and faculty.

“Any provision that would make higher education more costly for students, effectively reducing access, will harm American families and undermine the mission of higher education and CMU,” wrote interim President Farnam Jahanian. “That includes proposals to tax graduate student stipends, eliminate tax deductions for student loans, or reduce incentives for employers to contribute to tuition.”

He said there are long-term benefits to investing in graduate students.

“The education we provide undergraduates and graduate students is one of the most powerful engines for their future success and ability to contribute to society.”