Wayne State’s Science Policy Network-Detroit — known as SciPol-Detroit — was formed with the goal of advocating for science-based policies. The group took a major step in that effort with its first in-person trip to Washington, D.C., where members met with the offices of five U.S. representatives.
“The trip was amazing, and I know all our members thought it went really well,” said Shreya Desai, recent WSU graduate and president of SciPol-Detroit. “It was really different from the virtual experience we had last year. We walked around Capitol Hill and got to see the day-to-day activities of representatives. Some of our members were initially nervous, but I think they learned how much their voice matters and how much of an impact an in-person meeting can make.”
SciPol-Detroit brought an all-female group of 14, which included undergraduate, Ph.D. and medical students, as well as two postdocs and two faculty members.
The group had two full days of meetings and advocated for three issues chosen by the students: federal science funding (America Competes Act), maternal and perinatal health (Momnibus bill) and health disparities (Health Equity and Accountability Act).
“I was blown away by the students’ presentations,” said Hilary Marusak, SciPol-Detroit faculty advisor and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences in WSU’s School of Medicine.
“I was thoroughly impressed by their professionalism, clarity of communication and passion. It’s a lot different than doing scientific presentations, so this was a new format for them — talking to lawmakers. Wayne State should be very proud of what I saw on Capitol Hill. Our students are engaged citizen-scientists, and their messages were well received.”
Marusak said the trip was made possible by generous donations from the WSU Division of Government and Community Affairs, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, and a Research!America microgrant.
SciPol-Detroit worked closely with the Division of Government and Community Affairs to prepare for the trip.
“The vice president of government and community affairs, Patrick Lindsey, put on an in-depth training series for us and was actually one of the funders of the trip,” Marusak said. “Director of Federal Affairs James Williams has been helping our group since its inception. He has been very generous with his extensive knowledge on Capitol Hill and thoroughly prepared us to meet with lawmakers, including the logistics and how to craft an effective message. He was also very involved with our topic selection. The students picked issues that they were the most passionate about. We took those issues to James, who was able to tell us what current legislation matches those issues and if there is any traction or ability to make a difference on any of those issues.
“It was really a collaborative process. We also wanted to make sure that what we were advocating for were issues that Wayne State was behind.”
Marusak said with the help of Williams, they were able to meet with the offices of five representatives: Rep. John Moolenaar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Peter Meijer, Rep. Haley Stevens and Rep. Lauren Underwood.
“This experience helped re-instill a sense of hope and determination that our voice matters and that if we try, we can make a change in this world,” said Ph.D. student and SciPol-Detroit vice president Katie Dwyer, who will be taking over as president this summer. “It also highlighted the importance of engaging in demonstrations, community outreach and conversations with local policymakers — a core mission of SciPol-Detroit.”
Marusak said they created SciPol-Detroit to give members of Wayne State’s scientific community the opportunity to receive training and practice talking to lawmakers and the public about science, and to advocate for science-based policies.
“It’s so important because science really is a public good, and a lot of science is federally funded, so the public should, in turn, benefit from these taxpayer dollars,” Marusak said. “The students all said that this trip was a life-changing experience for them. They felt very invigorated and enthusiastic to come home and carry that passion forward toward what they are doing here.”
Desai said the students were also excited to see some of their work already make a difference.
“Last year, we had a lawmaker [Rep. Dan Kildee] email us and tell us because of our conversations with them virtually, they decided to co-sponsor the maternal health bill,” Desai said. “On our Washington, D.C., trip, lawmakers thanked us for bringing these bills to their attention and they are looking into supporting them. We were also able to thank lawmakers for supporting funding for science and policies to address health disparities. Things like that make us like realize what we're telling them matters, and it's not just a meeting — it's important.”
Dwyer said the group enjoys speaking to lawmakers and the general public about the scientific work they do because the goal of their work is often to help people.
“As scientists, we’re not often presented with the opportunity to speak with non-scientists about our work,” Dwyer said. “There’s great value in communicating science to a general audience because they often benefit from science in their daily lives. Most people are eager to learn more about scientific research and its findings, but without effective communication from the STEM community, we cannot fully convey just how interesting and critical the work that we do is.”
Moving forward, SciPol-Detroit knows advocacy work is a long process and they are inspired to keep working toward their goals. Marusak said Williams told the group it’s really a lifelong process to be a science advocate.
“James Williams told us that he'll keep us updated on these bills and issues, and SciPol keeps our members and our local community updated, in turn,” Desai said. “We're not stopping with our D.C. trip. We're going to continue working for these bills, including the maternal healthcare bill. It's a great example where we started last year and we're continuing to advocate for it, so the work never stops.”
SciPol-Detroit is open to anyone interested in science communication or policy on campus or in the metro Detroit area. The group is planning several events and opportunities this summer and over the next year, including workshops, panel discussions, community engagement internships, and trips to both Lansing and Washington, D.C. For more information, visit www.scipoldetroit.org.