SIAM News Blog

Advocating for Science as a Science Policy Fellowship Recipient

By Sheri Martinelli

I was immediately intrigued by SIAM’s call for new Science Policy Fellowship applicants, which came less than a year after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Concerned about the view of science in the U.S.—especially within the government—I felt powerless to do anything about it. My previous experience working in a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) laboratory, where I observed a gradual shift away from fundamental research, further piqued my interest in the program. I was therefore thrilled to be offered a fellowship, even though I was uncertain about the work I would actually be doing.

The first major event of my term as a Science Policy Fellowship recipient was the meeting of the Committee on Science Policy in spring 2018. The committee meets biannually, and the spring gathering is the main event. Fellowship recipients arrive a day early for orientation, which includes an overview of the government budget process with emphasis on science funding. We also received a primer on science advocacy that detailed SIAM’s role in this area. I learned about the hierarchical structure of science advocacy, which comprises broad coalitions such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, more specialized coalitions like large math societies, and individual organizations.

Our orientation was followed by the committee meeting on the second day, which featured an update from Lewis-Burke Associates (SIAM’s legislative liaison) and invited talks by those with leadership roles in agencies that support research in applied and computational mathematics. These presenters typically include representatives from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy (DOE), and DoD offices with direct oversight of mathematics research. Past gatherings have also invited guests from the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Institutes of Health. This day-long session is an opportunity for attendees to better understand the agencies’ perspectives and gain insight into their future initiatives and priorities.

Fellowship recipients spend the third day on Capitol Hill. They break into groups with committee members based on their experiences and interests, and visit U.S. congressional offices accompanied by Lewis-Burke specialists. For example, groups focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education; the DOE; and the DoD. I am routinely paired with the DoD group because of my background. At the 2018 spring meeting, my fellow group members consisted of Thomas Grandine (Boeing), Margaret Cheney (Colorado State University), John Burns (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University), and occasionally James Crowley (executive director of SIAM), all of whom are distinguished SIAM members with a great deal of experience with DoD research agencies. The prestige of these individuals was certainly awe-inspiring, but I viewed our interactions as my opportunity to be heard and did not refrain from speaking up. In fact, I felt I had to hold myself back much of the time! Fortunately, interacting with non-technically minded people has somewhat of a leveling effect.

Sheri Martinelli’s time as a SIAM Science Policy Fellowship recipient has included meetings with staff from the U.S. House and Senate Committees on Armed Services. Photo courtesy of Margaret Cheney.
My time on Capitol Hill allowed me to express my concerns about very applied research masquerading as basic research, something I have increasingly observed over the last several years. This situation poses a challenge to students who find it difficult to publish their work and invariably sacrifice long-term global leadership in basic science in favor of near-term deployment of technology. 

Fellowship recipients and committee members typically meet with staffers; elected officials participate on occasion, especially if any of the SIAM members happen to be constituents. The spring meeting is scheduled to not only accommodate as many regular committee members as possible, but also to coincide with a stage of the budget process (e.g., drafting of appropriations or authorizations) at which SIAM members can be most influential. While attendees still hear from the agencies at the fall meeting, it is not as productive a time to effectively insert our priorities into the budget. Therefore, Capitol Hill visits do not occur in the fall.

In addition to mandatory meeting attendance, Science Policy Fellowship recipients must complete a project in an area of interest. Given my DoD experience, I chose a project that would draw from that familiarity. An oft-quoted speech by Michael Griffin, the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, lays out the top priorities of future DoD research. Using these stated priorities as a guide, I wrote a white paper for SIAM—with much help from Lewis-Burke—on the contributions of previous and ongoing support for fundamental research in applied and computational mathematics to advances in these areas.

By writing this document and attending agency presentations at committee meetings, I began to truly understand the challenges of communicating the value of mathematics to an increasingly myopic society. Unfortunately, it takes years—if not decades—for purely mathematical results to morph into technology, or a “thing” whose importance most people can grasp. For this reason, involvement in policy or other less technical aspects of our profession is immensely valuable — we must get better at promoting the importance of our work to nonspecialists.

Despite media reports about hyper-partisanship and varying degrees of gridlock—not to mention troubling rhetoric from politicians themselves—the government largely continues to function. Staffers perform most of the groundwork, and simply being present and meeting with them, regardless of political affiliation, allows us to influence policy. Although the president’s recent budget requests have sought to make large cuts to scientific research, congressional members who actually control the budget are more pragmatic. We have had fruitful discussions with staffers from both major parties. We have also had rushed, unproductive interactions with staffers from both major parties. The meetings with majority and minority staff from the U.S. House and Senate Committees on Armed Services have been of particular interest.

Ultimately, I’ve found my experience as a SIAM Science Policy Fellowship recipient to be extremely valuable. It has provided a wonderful opportunity to contribute to SIAM, learn a great deal about communicating the value of applied and computational mathematics, and gain more confidence in the system. The fellowship has reassured me that those with direct influence are aware of and working on the concerns that I raised about the state of support for fundamental research in mathematics within the DoD.

Sheri Martinelli is an assistant research professor at Pennsylvania State University’s Applied Research Laboratory. Her research is primarily in the areas of computational and ocean acoustics. She also holds a faculty appointment in Penn State’s Graduate Program in Acoustics.

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