Churchill Fellowship: Science policy and public engagement in Washington DC

Washington DC was a VERY HOT whirlwind of interesting conversations. new experiences and lots of lessons in American history. I think the time I spent in DC is going to spawn a number of blog posts focused on different topics but for now, here's what I got up to and my thoughts from DC. I've included a summary of my take home messages at the bottom of the post.

First stop was the American Association of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology's (ASBMB) 'Hill Day'. This is where a group of scientists from the association meet with with their representatives, Senators and Congressmen to discuss their science and issues in funding.

Benjamin Corb and the policy team at ASBMB do an excellent job of training the scientists in what to expect from their meetings with Senators and Congressmen, how to structure their short discussions and get the most out of them.

It was fascinating to see the interaction between scientists and their representatives(and see the Capitol in action)! Policy engagement is incredibly important to ensure that the bills and recommendations that are made help the investigation of science in a responsible way. Ben even managed to give me a quick tour of the Capitol in between meetings. I managed to snap a quick picture with Churchill too.

When the busy day had ended all the participants gathered for some wind-down drinks. The discussions about their day showed how much they had learned from the experience. They were all enthusiastic about their time on the hill and keen to keep connected in with policy and their representatives about science.

The Library of Congress Building
I also got to spend some time in the ASBMB offices. It's quite possibly the friendliest office in the world. I had some great discussions about their plans for public engagement training for scientists, and their thoughts on the use of social media by scientists and by them as an organisation. ASBMB have been extremely proactive in supporting and encouraging scientists to engage with new audiences and the use of online tools. During my PhD I was invited to blog for them at the annual Experimental Biology Conference about the conference and science being presented.

During the week I met the deputy head of Social Media at NASA, Jason Townsend and Sarah DeWitt who is a Communications Officer at NASA. I had fantastic discussions with both of them about the approach NASA has to engagement on social media and the training programmes they have. It was incredible to spend time with both of them, and share some similar frustrations and thoughts too.

The Lincoln Memorial at night
Many science communicators and writers are based in DC and I met a number of familiar and new faces at the DC science tweet-up. This informal gathering was a nice break to the more office-based settings I had been in during the day. There were some great chats about social media but also about general thoughts about working in the States in DC, interactions with government, politics and what happened the day the @nih_bear came to visit.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit organisation focused on science advocacy,  had some fantastic examples of engagement beyond an audience of scientists online. They've worked with partner organisations focused on particular drives and themes to get their messages out online. Great use of hashtags. I've written a little about them in my previous blog post.

The Monument (the DC by moonlight 'trolly tour' is a great way of seeing the sights in the summer when it is really hot!)

As I spent the weekend in DC I got the opportunity to explore many of the museums and famous landmarks. I know fairly little about American history and so this trip was a real learning experience. I didn't appreciate just how big the monuments are and, of course, it was great to see the White House. DC is easy to get around using the metro system.

The Smithsonian museums in DC are incredible (and free!). I spent over half a day in the Air and Space Museum and still didn't see everything. I love a planetarium and this one didn't disappoint. The show on 'Dark Matter' narrated by Neil De Grasse Tyson left you with a clear message ringing in your ears, "there are still many great discoveries to come, we just have to keep exploring".

American Dinosaurs at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

The museum is also home to a replica of the Hubble, the Wright Brothers' plane and many other important and significant artefacts from the human and space exploration. It's amazing to think that the first flight was only just over 100 years ago.. and the technology we have now has exceeded what we could even dream of (I'm actually writing this sat in an airport lounge so it makes it even more real to me at this moment in time)!

The Air and Space museum has a volunteer programme too. I find this approach interesting as a community building initiative and wondered what incentives (if any) people get - or if this programme relies on people being passionate about the subject.

My week in DC was crammed full of more meetings and discussions than I have mentioned in this post, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and their Public Engagement team.  It would be silly to try and cover all the conversations so I will cover my biggest realisations from when I was in DC below. Some common themes started emerging over the week and a half I spent in DC.

  • Without proper resource, planning, training and knowledge connecting with new audiences via social media and building a community is difficult. 
  • Everyone wants to engage (rather than disseminate) more but time and resource is an issue
  • A common comment is that social media isn't always the answer and it it isn't an easy solution but sometimes it can be an extremely useful tool 
  • Many researchers discuss how useful social media has been for their own networking but there is little discussion of its use for public engagement 
  • Rather than trying to build your own empire online, think clearly about what your goals are. Does it make sense to work with others that have already built an audience?

This June I am undertaking a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship to look at the communication of science via social media. I will be traveling to North America and I am looking to connect with people as I go. You can read more about it here.


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