Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Miss Atomic Bomb goes to Washington

Yesterday, I participated in what's known as a "fly in" - people linked by a common goal all come together in DC for one day to blitz as many public offices as possible with their message. Our common goal was funding for nuclear physics (we were, incidentally, all nuclear physicists); we came together for a day to let our representatives know that we supported the President's proposed budget for DOE Office of Science and that they, too, should support it.
One important thing to note about such fly-ins is that the people flying in don't often meet with the actual representative. Your Senator or Congressperson is too busy to meet with everyone who would like to share a story or voice an opinion, so instead you meet with a staffer - a legislative assistant who has been assigned to a specific topic (such as budget, or science & tech, or immigration policy). These people range in experience from fresh-faced political science majors just out of college to PhD scientists on AAAS Congressional Fellowships (I had the good fortune of encountering one such fellow in the office of Colorado's senator Michael Bennet). One should not, however, assume that just because the meeting is with a staffer, the meeting is a wasted effort. These assistants bend the ear of their respective representatives, and can have a tremendous amount of influence - a Senator or Member relies upon the input of their staffers for making important decisions (because, as I said, they're busy). Just like you would trust the opinion of your butcher when buying meat or your mechanic when fixing your car, the staffers provide educated opinions on their assigned topics to the office where they work.
Because we're only in Washington for one day, schedules are tight. I had meetings with six different offices, in both the House and Senate, between 10:30am and 3pm (with a short break for lunch in the House cafeteria!). There were others with me, usually one or two, and the day's organizers made sure to provide us with materials that we could leave with people (such as pamphlets on how nuclear physics is important to national security, medical research, isotope production, and the like). All of the offices I went to were full of interested and supportive people, people who took time out of their day to listen to what we had to say. By the time I was finished yesterday afternoon, I was exhausted but pleasantly surprised at how the day had gone.
Today I'm back in my regular office, back to my regular work, and the whirlwind of yesterday already seems that much further away. But asking for something once isn't generally enough, so I'm sure I'll be back in Washington again to make sure we have funding, not just now, but for the future.

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