For students in labs and classrooms, legislation making its way through Congress can seem far away and posing little importance about how they perform their research. However, there are often several bills that directly impact lab research, and students should be aware that their careers might be directly impacted by them. Students in the third term course Advanced Concepts in Toxicology, Physiology & Molecular Mechanisms studied the federal legislative process, and got first-hand experience with the legislative process by attending a briefing on Capitol Hill.
The first class meeting began with a broad overview of the legislative process, so students understood the steps that a bill goes through to become a law. This background allowed for an deeper understanding of a specific current research-related bill, the “Humane and Existing Alternatives in Research and Testing Sciences Act of 2019” or HEARTS Act, which helped students learn how the provisions in the bill would have an impact on how studies are performed. In later classes, students were split into groups to argue the strengths and weaknesses of the HEARTS Act. “One thing I personally learned from seeing how this bill was written is that we should not, and cannot afford to assume that scientific research, output, methodologies or even aims are, for lack of a better term, 'common knowledge'”, says Dr. Oby Ebenebe, a post-doc observing the class. “I think having those assumptions fuels frustration and animosity, decreases motivation, in both scientists and law-makers, and therefore hinders progress”. Members of the scientific community can help overcome this hurdle by being active participants in discussions of science related policy and regulation.
This in depth analysis helped prepare the class to attend a Congressional briefing on Capitol Hill. These briefings are intended to assist staffers of members of Congress to learn more about the bill to see if it is something their office should support. Despite the rainy weather on the day of the briefing, a dozen students hopped on the MARC from Baltimore, and even the Metro from Silver Spring, to attend. There were experts such as Dr. Paul Locke, Associate Professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, who spoke about what benefits the bill would have to the research community and how it would strengthen scientific research. Co-sponsors of the Bill, Representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard and Ken Calvert, also spoke about the importance of the HEARTS Act bill.
For many students, this was an opportunity to learn more about the law and the communication skills that are not usually taught or practiced in a traditional scientific curriculum. Environmental Health and Engineering PhD candidate, Nicole Taube, says “as a lab scientist, this experience was extremely helpful because it showed us how our research can extend beyond just the lab. In your PhD, you’re taught a lot about how to conduct research and how to publish, but it was really cool to be able to see how research can go beyond that and impact policy initiatives. It also showed us just how important it is to be able to effectively communicate your research to people who may not have the same background as you.”
The course instructors, Assistant Professor, Mark Kohr, PhD and Associate Professor, Paul Locke, DrPH, hope that all students recognize the necessity and importance of advocating for their work, especially to decision-makers in Congress who set policy and make laws. There are many opportunities at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and outside of academia to take an active role as an advocate for science. These opportunities compliment and enhance the important work done inside of the lab.