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Q&A with Justin Ripley, president of Princeton Citizen Scientists

Courtesy of Justin Ripley

Members of the Princeton Citizen Scientists after meeting with members
of the National Academy of Sciences during their annual DC science advocacy and professional development trip.
Courtesy of Justin Ripley Members of the Princeton Citizen Scientists after meeting with members of the National Academy of Sciences during their annual DC science advocacy and professional development trip.

On Dec. 5 and 6, 18 graduate students and members of the Princeton Citizen Scientists, a student organization formed in 2016 seeking to promote scientific engagement and affect scientific policy, traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for issues relating to climate change, science education, and healthcare. 

On Saturday, the Citizen Scientists’ president, Justin Ripley, spoke with the Daily Princetonian about the trip and the other work of the Citizen Scientists. 


The Daily Princetonian: What was the goal of the Princeton Citizen Scientists’ trip to Washington, D.C, and what specific impacts do you wish to see?

Justin Ripley: We’re partly funded by the Office of Career Services, so one of the goals was to take graduate students and undergraduate students in the sciences and expose them to the workings of U.S. government by taking them to various government agencies and having a talk with their lawmakers about the issues they care about. The other goal was to actually successfully advocate for science issues that we cared about, so, for example, climate change, science funding, science education, nuclear weapons, and disarmament.

DP: How long has PCS been traveling to D.C. to meet with policymakers? How were these trips first organized?

JR: The trips have been going on since 2016, and since the group’s founding, I think we’ve gone on a few trips now, about one a year. They were first organized by just a small group of graduate students who thought that people in the sciences should be more aware of how the government works and that we should learn how to advocate for issues we care about. 

DP: How was the trip structured, and who were among the representatives and organizations that you met with? How did the representatives you met with receive the proposals?

JR: First, it was a two-day trip in the middle of the week near the end of the semester, at the beginning of December. I think it was Dec. 5 and 6, a Wednesday and Thursday. We met with four different organizations. First, we met with some program managers at the National Academy of Sciences.Then, we met with the president of the Federation of American Scientists, Ali Nouri, who, incidentally enough, is a Princeton alum. He got a Ph.D. here, and he talked to us about how to effectively advocate for science issues. On the next day, we met with our local reps. We did this by asking everyone who went on the trip to email or call their local staff, representative, or senator from the state they were from and schedule a meeting for that day. We met with staffers and some representatives and senators on Thursday morning, and on Thursday afternoon, we met with some staff members from the Library of Congress, and they talked to us about how they interact with the government, how they provide information and resources to lawmakers and staffers. The trip was a bit of a professional development trip, talking to agencies ... and the trip was also advocating for science issues. 


DP: Why did you chose those topics in particular? How were members assigned to groups?

JR: The issues we chose were entirely determined by those who signed up to go on our trip. We had 18 people go on our trip, and they came from a variety of what was essentially all STEM fields this year. In previous years, it’s been more of a mixture. There were a lot of people on our trip who worked at the [Princeton] Plasma Physics Lab and they care a lot about climate issues and nuclear weapons security and disarmament, so we had a group form on climate issues and we had a group form on nuclear issues. Some of our members cared about science education ... so we had a group talk about student use of all of those other things that were important. There was a group that talked about healthcare issues as well, because we had some students at Princeton who are doing a joint Ph.D.-M.D. with Rutgers, and we had people who cared about healthcare, so they formed a group. I think we had four groups in total. It was all student-driven. We didn’t dictate what people talked about, we didn’t tell them what they had to say, we didn’t have an agenda, we just provided a platform for students to learn about an issue they cared about and advocate for it. 

DP: What’s next for the group, and are there more planned upcoming meetings with policy-makers? Could you tell us more about your ongoing project, “Briefing on Solar Energy Policy for N.J. lawmakers”? 

JR: In terms of follow-up, in January, we’re going to meet again and follow-up via email with the staffers we talked to. Some of our meetings were better received than others, and we may actually get some things moving in terms of having lawmakers, say, sign some letters. With regards to the solar energy development, we are working with a primarily undergraduate group, the Princeton Student Climate Initiative. We’re trying to help them, working with them on their goal to draft legislation, clean energy legislation, and interest legislators, so we’re helping do some research for them ... It is something we’re trying to collaborate with them on. 

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DP: On your website, you say that you have organized the group to understand what we “can do to tackle the societal issues we face today and promote democratic participation and evidence-based policy making.” In your opinion, what is the relationship between science and public policy? What responsibility, if any, do scientists have to affect policy and engage civically?

JR: Firstly, we hopefully will have the president of the Federation of American Scientists come talk about that in February. At least personally, I see the role of, in terms of science and public policy, at least with issues with regards to, say, if the government’s gonna get involved in things like energy, or education, or how we use land, these are all issues where technical expertise in those issues is quite important. So, at least at a level of people with technical expertise informing policymakers on issues that are relevant to the legislation they’re trying to pass and enforce, that’s an incredibly important interaction that is fairly well established. On the other hand, scientific funding in the national labs and all these resources are a lot of times provided by the government, so on those ends, they are useful for each other, and it’s important for both ends to understand the interests. Why do lawmakers decide what is relevant and salient to lawmakers, what is relevant and salient to scientists — both of these things are important with regards to the functioning and funding of science and the laws that will actually impact the way one will go. For example, clean air, clean energy, clean water, food, all these things fit in each other. 

DP: The Citizen Scientists’ task forces cover topics from the obviously science-related, such as climate change, to the less apparently “scientific,” such as human rights and prison reform. How would the Citizen Scientists characterize the intersection between science and topics such as child welfare, prison reform, education policy, and the like?

JR: So, those tasks forces were formed a few years ago. We actually haven’t had as much activity on those. The website is quite out of date, and we’re working to update that. Let me scroll through these task forces to see what we have followed up on. Climate change, inclusive science, education policy — at least with regards to education policy, you want to educate new students, new minds, the latest information and the latest pedagogical techniques, you want to have them. Plus, science is involved in how you test and evaluate teaching techniques that work most effectively, so at least on that end, there’s some science. Educating students about science and math, of course, so I would say just loosely on that end, you want to have students well-educated in the STEM fields, at least to a certain degree, just because ... it’s important to have some basic knowledge there. And, just in terms of, on the flipside, just evaluating good teaching techniques. In the news, you always hear about how we’ve fallen behind certain countries and their education systems, so how do we actually find methods that work well? Nuclear ban treaty, that’s about nuclear weapons, one of our members from our group worked in mechanical engineering and plasma physics, and their work, at least indirectly, touches on nuclear issues. At least a lot of their funding comes from, for example, the DOE, and a lot of the DOE is tasked with actually maintaining the nuclear weapons arsenal, so there’s a lot of people who are interested in how their work actually relates to this issues ... A lot of these issues are driven by particular individuals, and we try to work them into our broader goal, that being empowering people in the sciences to be more aware of how the government works and figuring out ways how we can actively and helpfully inform policymakers. The specifics are driven by students.

DP: Among other critics, the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists says the current administration is “sidelining science from decision-making and weakening the federal scientific enterprise.” Movements such as the March for Science have emerged in response to the perceived devaluation of fact-based policy-making. How does the current political climate affect the demand for scientific advocacy and the actions of Citizen Scientists?

JR: The group was formed by a few students in the Center on Science and Global Security in the wake of the election, so in a very direct way, this group exists because of that and the current political climate. I would say, when we go to Washington, D.C., and talk to staffers, everyone is happy that there are people who are advocating on behalf of the sciences. There’s always a lot of industries, farming and pharmaceuticals, for example, where the majority are advocating for their issues very strongly, but on terms of the level of just say, science and basic research advocating for themself, there are fewer people doing that, but just having a few people there, I think, regardless of political climate, it always seems to be encouraged. With regards to the current climate, I would say our group, like March for Science and a lot of these things that have formed in the last couple of years, is a response to that and the outgrowth of a community of students on campus who wanted to have an organization that made people aware of how the government works. A lot of people and students were trying to figure out how they could do something, and they also felt like they didn’t know a lot about how the government functions, all the different knobs that were turned, and our organization is trying to help sort of increase knowledge on how the government works, because that’ll help us more effectively advocate for the issues we care about and understand better how these things work. So I think it’s very pertinent now, but even, like climate change is, it’ll still be important. 

DP: How can undergraduates interested in the sciences impact policy-making?

JR: I would say advocating for issues you care about in terms of calling your representative or senator and writing letters. Those things actually do matter. Sometimes, it’s not always obvious when it matters, but those things can actually cause changes in smaller things — changing the wording on the website, or changing the wording in the law. A lot of these things are at least indirectly driven by who is calling, who is saying, ‘this is important to me, this is why.’ Besides calling and writing letters, for example, I think getting involved in local organizations, so for example, the Princeton township is working on drafting new rules ... they want to become cleaner. Students can get involved with that, they always welcome students’ input, and I would say just being vocal about things you care about and trying to inform oneself about it. It’s not always going to have a huge, big impact, but that’s sort of the messy nature of the system ... On a local level, it’s much more clear how to impact policy. There is an undergraduate group, again, the PSCI, and they are actively right now working on climate legislation. That’s an undergraduate group that is very actively trying to shape policy in New Jersey.

DP: Is there anything else you would like to add?

JR: These D.C. trips we take are open to all. We don’t typically have a lot of undergraduates join us, but we have in the past, and it’s always great. Again, our organization is trying to provide a framework, a scaffolding to allow students in Princeton to inform themselves and engage with policy-makers and just be better informed about it and try to impact the policy itself. Through the Wilson School, there are official programs for students to kind of get involved, but we’re trying to show that even if you wanted to, say, pursue a career in research, science, or whatever your career is, you can still have an impact, and it’s important to be aware and engaged in that, and we’re trying to help bridge that gap and show that it’s actually not as difficult as it might sound. Hopefully, we’ll continue doing these trips and having talks and get some advertisements and hopefully the president of the Federation of American Scientists will come to Princeton and give a talk on this as well. 

I was definitely not the lead organizer of this. Katja Luxem, she did a lot of work as well, so I helped her out, but she was a huge asset in organizing a lot of this trip.