New Cambridge-MIT Collaboration Makes White House Trip Possible for Members of CUSPE

washingtonA new collaboration between the Cambridge University Science & Policy Exchange (CUSPE) and MIT’s Science Policy Initiative (SPI) gave CUSPE committee members Fiona Docherty, Edward Oughton and Claire Weiller the opportunity to join SPI on their annual trip to US Government agencies in Washington DC in October 2013. The purpose of the trip was to understand and discuss the role of science and technology in contemporary policy-making processes; an increasingly important awareness process for early career researchers.

Over the three day initiative a group of twenty post-graduate students from MIT, Georgetown, and Cambridge visited a combination of executive agencies, funding agencies and think-tanks. The programme (outlined in more detail below) included trips to the Office of Science & Technology Policy, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, National Academy of Sciences and the Brookings Institution. Common recurring themes from these diverse visits included innovation, energy policy, tackling climate change and increasing economic competitiveness.

The trip has resulted in stronger links between CUSPE and the MIT SPI, with both student-led societies hoping to collaborate in the future. Provided sufficient traction and interest is gathered, CUSPE would like to organise a similar trip to government and science and technology research institutions in the UK.

“The initiative provided me with a unique opportunity to understand the organisational structure of the US Government, and how academic research in science and technology is used to inform decision making in different departments. It was certainly a highlight of my professional development at the University of Cambridge, expanding my awareness of the opportunities and challenges shared by the US, UK and Europe” Edward Oughton.

Furthermore, opportunities for young scientists and researchers to transition into US government were discussed during the trip and may be of more general interest to those involved with or interested in CUSPE.   The AAAS fellowship was repeatedly mentioned as a main route for graduating scientists and engineers to find placements in executive agencies. Many of the recent graduates we encountered during the policy visits were current or previous AAAS fellows.  For non-US nationals, the Presidential Management Fellowship is an entry option. Other opportunities include the NAS internship through the Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship program.  A scheme which comprises a 12-week program that exposes scientists and engineers to policy each year.  In addition the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) has a 2 year graduate program in science and technology policy that requires independent funding through such programs as the AAAS fellowship. For experienced researchers and academics interested in engaging with policy at a later stage of their career, the Department of Energy (DOE) hosts an International Policy Advisor program to facilitate mobility to and from academia with their offices.

Science, policy and the US government: a whistle-stop tour

The trip started with an informative greeting from the President of the MIT Washington Office, Professor William Bonvillian, who briefed us about the agencies and more broadly, on innovation in the US economy.  Prof. Bonvillian’s talk was followed by a meeting at the Brookings Institution, a think tank set up in 1916 that conducts economic and policy research outside of academia. Brookings produce both independent research and opinion pieces on issues from cyber-security to the financial deficit.

A visit to the Department of State (equivalent to the UK Foreign Office) was next, where the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State led a debate about the benefits of engaging scientists in policy making.  We then were introduced to the function and mission of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). With approximately one percent of the federal budget, USAID is the largest donor for development projects in numerous fields, including education, energy and environment, and social entrepreneurship.  USAID engages researchers from academic institutions through cooperative agreements, simple input-based collaborations, and funding grants.

The next day’s visits were at the “front end” of the innovation system, i.e. basic research. We headed to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which was chartered after the Civil War in 1863 to identify leading scientists in the country and commit them to provide advice to government on issues that affect policy, similar to the British Royal Society. Kevin Finneran, Director of the NAS’s Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, discussed the issues faced by NAS in maintaining output quality and rigour while staying relevant in the context of increasing pace of change in society, research, and policy.

The Department of Energy (DOE)’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office was next on the agenda. Here we were introduced to the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the only new federal agency created in the US in 2013.  ARPA-E is based upon an innovation model that aims at developing very early-stage technologies and discoveries into working prototypes that have commercial potential.  Our DOE host, Dr. Libby Wayman, was a MIT PhD alumnus who was brought in from industry to provide her expertise in advanced manufacturing.  It is clear that such transitions between policy, industry and academia are invaluable and should be encouraged for the benefit of policy-making.

A later meeting at the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gave us a fascinating insight into their unique innovation model, similar to that employed by ARPA-E.  The agency funds high impact, blue-sky projects over a short timeframe (2-5 years) to bring them to proof-of-concept stage.  One such example is the Blood Pharming project which aims to manufacture large quantities of blood in a small self-contained system. DARPA was founded after the Sputnik launch in 1957 with the aim to prevent and cause technological surprise, under the idea that revolutionary advancements in science don’t come from safe incremental projects. DARPA works as a platform with commercial partners to develop the dual use of these technologies. They have no internal research, but a budget and blueprints that they contract to the country’s experts who may be in academic, federal or industrial research labs, or start-ups.  A typical 5-year program budget is $50 million and funding is withdrawn when progress does not meet targets. After DARPA the projects might be passed onto other government or commercial agencies to develop further for commercialisation.  While the agency’s primary purpose is to serve the DoD, the technologies that spin out of DARPA often have wide-ranging impacts on society such as lasers, semiconductors and the Internet.

A visit to the National Science Foundation, an independent government funding agency for scientific research followed next. The NSF directors explained some of the challenges faced in funding social, behavioural and economic science research in a context of budget sequestration.  CUSPE’s Edward Oughton related the point to the Economic and Social Research Council budget cuts in the UK.  MIT PhD researcher in physics Dillon Gardner discussed the challenge of framing research proposals for basic science disciplines such that they emphasise the potential impact and applications the research may have in 20 or 50 years.

The third morning saw a new addition to the SPI trip with a visit to the British Embassy, courtesy of the CUSPE connection! Cambridge Gates scholar alumnus Lindsay Chura spoke about her experience transitioning from a neuroscience PhD into the science and innovation network for embassies and consulates.  As a senior policy advisor, she helps facilitate UK-US relationships between institutions and funding agencies. We then moved on to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a non-partisan think-tank on technology and innovation policy. Here a newly founded team of climate and energy specialists discussed a recent report arguing to reduce subsidies for clean energy technologies.

The trip ended with a visit to the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) located in the White House and to an affiliated research and development centre, the Science and Technology Policy Institute.  Early-career science and policy advisor to the President, Robbie Barbero, welcomed us and discussed his role, specifically how his background in academic research contributes to executive policy-making.  The relationship between political and economic cycles and science research funding was briefly discussed, as well as the importance of the relationship between the head of the OSTP and the President.  Students in the group were encouraged to participate in the policy process by sending ideas or contributions in their areas of research expertise.

In conclusion, the executive agency visits were a very valuable opportunity to deepen our understanding of themes and issues surrounding innovation, energy policy and economic competitiveness.

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