An unlikely delegation of Princeton graduate students paid a visit to Capitol Hill in mid-May. Princeton Citizen Scientists (PCS), an organization of socially conscious researchers without formal training in policymaking, consists of students in scientific fields who use their backgrounds to offer insights on current and upcoming legislation. This group has been traveling to Washington, D.C., annually since 2017 (skipping 2020 and 2021) for advocacy purposes, in part due to efforts of Sébastien Philippe *18, who completed his Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering and is now back at Princeton as a lecturer and a researcher combining nuclear science with public policy.
This year, the 12 PCS members who took part in the trip split into four working groups on conservation, health care, outer-space pollution, and artificial intelligence (AI) ethics. Each group met with scientific staff members of different representatives, including senators Chuck Schumer and Cory Booker. (A proposed meeting with Rep. Lauren Boebert fell through because the email response from her staffer accidentally ended up in a PCS organizer’s spam folder.)
The research interests of PCS members tend to intersect with areas of their advocacy. For instance, Christian Gray ’17 is a fourth-year graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology investigating nutrient cycling in South Africa’s fynbos biome and is also the current president of PCS. As a scientist studying an endangered ecosystem, Gray spends a lot of time thinking about the importance of conservation and combating climate change, which led him to join a working group that suggested improvements to the implementation of the America the Beautiful Act, an initiative of the Biden-Harris administration aimed at conserving 30% of land and water nationwide by 2030.
According to Gray, a major strength that scientists have in their visits to Washington is the enthusiasm for their research. “If you’re really excited about what you’re talking about and you can find ways to engage people, then they will be excited about it as well,” he said.
Another working group was spearheaded by a passionate astrophysics student, Roohi Dalal, whose research focuses in part on sustainable use of outer space, the subject of the group’s advocacy. Their conversations managed to convince the staffers of the importance of mitigating atmospheric pollution and raised a possibility of follow-up discussions. In fact, presentations by PCS members generally elicit positive responses from policymakers, although sometimes the encounters can be more lukewarm, Gray said.
In the future, Gray envisions connecting with similar science policy groups at other universities to magnify the impact graduate students in the sciences can have in shaping future policy. In addition to pushing for nationwide policy changes, the students of PCS are also challenging the conventional perception of a scientist as an aloof character waiting for an apple to fall on his (usually the scientist is pictured as a “he”) head to inspire a brilliant new theory of the inner workings of the universe. Instead, Gray said, the projectile that strikes these young researchers and propels them into action is the acute feeling of “the world being as on fire as it is [which makes] people want to be part of the solution.”