Friday, January 16, 2015

Washington DC


In mid December 2014, I was part of a Caltech Y-run field trip to the nation's capitol. We went to learn about science policy and government, and had a full schedule of meetings and tours.

Our operations were based out of the William Penn house, a half-hearted hostel and Quaker meeting house less than a mile east of the Capitol. Days typically started with an excursion on the metro to a relevant agency. The first one we visited was the National Science Foundation, or NSF. Standing on an internal balcony we were able to stare into room upon room of experts assessing thousands of grant proposals. NSF does not conduct in house research, and is proud to spend less than 6% of their ~$7b annual budget on internal administration.

Next up was the National Institute of Health, at their sprawling campus. Here, 33 divisions research many aspects of human health, including the recent Ebola outbreak. It was fascinating to get a 'boots on the ground' view of how the dollars and cents are spent - our particular example was hearing aid research.

DARPA was an interesting event. With a comparatively small budget of $5b, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is based in an unmarked building and employs a rotating staff of contractors to invent the future and prevent surprises. I took the opportunity to ask about jet-launched satellites, 3D printed vaccines, and addressing the balance between law enforcement and privacy-enhancing technology.

Last up was the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the French Second Empire-styled Eisenhower Executive Office building directly adjacent to the White House. Here we got an incredible view of both the West Wing and the process by which the nation's scientists form consensus for advising on science policy.

In the evenings, we hosted Caltech alumni at the William Penn house. We got a good view of work in lobbying, contracting, and policy. The motions between working 'on the hill' and the need to keep ones skills sharp and therefore useful. The grave importance attached to making your boss look good and avoiding offence! And the process by which ideas become laws. Here, I understood more fully, the complexity and slowness is a feature, not a bug!

In our moments of spare time I managed to zoom through the Air and Space Museum, get a tour of the Capitol building, and walk around the mall through all the monuments during a chilly midnight.

We were lucky to have such incredible access and rather warm weather. I am not convinced that working in Washington is something I'd like to do. It takes more dedication than I have to be content with a legacy that is 99% shutting down dumb ideas, like a legislative ban on Nitrogen. On the other hand, someone has to do it, and the price you pay for a participatory government is that you have to participate.

All too soon it was time to catch the blue line to the airport and leave - the next adventure beckoned!

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