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Government science outreach through OSA (Virtual) Congressional Visits Days!

Nicholas Kochan, OSA Student Member, Institute of Optics, University of Rochester, New York, USA

In September 2020, I participated in the OSA Congressional Visits Day program and met with staff from U.S. Congressman Joe Morelle (D-NY) and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) offices.  Looking back on the experience, I’m proud of what I learned and the connections I gained. 

Regardless of our political views, I think we can agree that 2020 has been a tumultuous time.  Coordinated response to COVID-19 has underscored the need for basic public education in science.  2020 was also an election year in the United States. Government actions have challenged our ability to uphold professional integrity in the scientific and engineering communities.  We see ever more clearly that our best efforts as researchers and engineers need the support of the policy makers.  We cannot let our representatives simply look away from the facts and scientific experts, regardless of their party.  Optics and photonics developments are critical to numerous private and public sector capabilities, impacting government actions.  But sometimes these developments cannot be funded until government is interested…so we need to break the cycle!

I was excited when I heard I would attend the OSA Congressional Visits Days. But like other meetings, that event had to move to a virtual setting.  At first I was sad and hesitant – I was looking forward to connecting with my representatives in person, and I anticipated meeting with OSA colleagues to workshop on how to connect with government leaders.  I was worried that the quality of connection with my colleagues and representatives would be compromised in a virtual format.

But I was pleased with the redirection.  OSA quickly pivoted to adopt an online meeting platform which allowed people to meet in a virtual conference room.  This was great for the workshop sessions we had.  In these sessions we were able to mock-present and critique each other’s communication skills, which gave me more confidence in getting my points across and listening to congressional representatives.  And I couldn’t be happier with the colleagues I met – they encouraged my confidence and helped me improve myself.  Shortly after the workshop I had meetings set up to speak with my representatives to discuss and advocate for important optics and photonics efforts in the community, such as the newly formed bipartisan/bicameral Optics and Photonics Caucus.

I was also glad that I stuck with it for the long run, and did not postpone my participation.  It felt like by attending the virtual meeting I was working with OSA to adapt to the real situation.  The world did not stop for COVID-19 nor stop for political tumult…even if sometimes it felt that way.  In fact, the government needed even more outreach from its constituents to hear the reality of the situation, and how science and technology were still important to them.  During our visits, congressional staff in support of the Optics and Photonics Caucus thanked us for reaching out so they could hear the impact of their actions on the industry and academic research.  It was also both fun to educate staffers less familiar with optics about the increasing applications of optics and photonics in everyday life, from agriculture to energy production.  Learning how to have these conversations taught me that all global issues are also local issues.  The Congressional Visits Day workshops empowered me to effectively have these conversations with local representatives.  It felt great to thank representatives for their help and guide them on our future needs. 

Without educating our representatives, they might consider cutting funding for important scientific endeavors and graduate student programs, and this is still true today!  Our scientific community engagement with government has been critical in helping people come to grips with reality.  I began my involvement by learning how to effectively reach out to representatives and get my point across, and I’m glad that I attended the OSA Virtual Congressional Visits Day – it was a great opportunity!

Learn more about OSA’s Congressional Visits Day or how to schedule district visit/facility tour here.

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