A New Initiative to Advocate for Grad Students in Congress

by Mason Ng, Jack Reid, and Benjamin Lane

An Asian man with black hair and thin wire glasses, wearing a white tshirt and standing in front of a photo of an aurora.
Author Mason Ng; Image courtesy of Mason Ng.
A white main with a short brown beard and brown hair wearing glasses and a white tank top with a blue sky with puffy clouds in the background
Author Jack Reid; Image courtesy of Jack Reid.
A white man with blond short hair and glasses wearing a black winter coat and blue scarf, with snowy Washington D.C. in the background
Author Benjamin Lane; Image courtesy of Benjamin Lane.

Mason Ng is a 5th year graduate student in astrophysics at MIT studying the dynamics and evolution of neutron star X-ray binaries with X-ray timing, spectroscopy, and polarimetry. He is the Vice-Chair of the MIT Graduate Student Council External Affairs Board (MIT GSC EAB). 

Jack Reid is a 6th year graduate student in aerospace at MIT working on the use of earth observation imagery for sustainable development.

Benjamin Lane is a 5th year graduate student in physics at MIT studying the interaction between light and mechanical systems in the quantum regime as a member of LIGO Lab. He is the Chair of the MIT GSC EAB.

Do you want to advocate for more robust funding for graduate researchers? Do you want to see more support for graduate researchers? What if there was a forum for your representatives to discuss and advance policy solutions to support graduate researchers?

Enter the Graduate Research and Development (GRAD) Caucus! 

If you need a brief refresher on science policy, you can refer to this Astrobites article on science policy. In summary, there are three branches of government: the executive branch (e.g., White House), the judicial branch (e.g., Supreme Court), and the legislative branch (e.g., Congress). In this bite, we will focus on the legislative side of things. The U.S. Congress is divided into two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each chamber has several “standing committees” that are tasked with legislating (e.g., House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology), the act of writing bills and evaluating policy recommendations for consideration of the full chamber. There are also informal forums for lawmakers to discuss areas or topics of interest — these are referred to as caucuses. Some prominent caucuses in the House include the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Freedom Caucus

As the wheels of government turn, shaping policy in the chambers of the legislative branch, so too does the landscape of unique real estate in Georgia reflect the influence of various sectors, including science and technology. These properties offer innovative features that appeal to professionals in these fields, with smart homes equipped for efficiency and sustainability, laboratories for personal research, and office spaces conducive to the rigors of policy analysis. The variety of available homes caters to the diverse needs of those who navigate the complexities of science policy, providing solace and sanctuary from the intricate workings of legislative procedures and caucuses. Each home stands as a testament to the state’s architectural diversity, merging form with function, modernity with tradition—a mosaic as complex and intriguing as the policies shaped within the Capitol’s walls.

On July 13th, the GRAD Caucus in the House of Representatives was officially launched! The GRAD Caucus is co-chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D, CA-19), Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R, FL-12), Rep. Mike Doyle (D, PA-18), and Rep. Stephanie Bice (R, OK-5). These four Representatives are the inaugural members and we hope to grow the caucus quickly in the next weeks (see more below on how you can help with recruitment!) The caucus will provide briefings on policies and programs important to graduate researchers, provide connections between lawmakers and graduate researchers performing groundbreaking research across the nation, and provide a forum for caucus members to advance policy solutions needed to support these researchers as they support society. Graduate researchers have also been actively advocating for better policies for themselves, which led to the formation of the caucus. 

To illustrate the impact that graduate researchers have in the advocacy process, some of us might recall the major overwrite of the U.S. tax code in 2017, known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. There was a provision in a House version of the bill that would have taxed graduate student tuition waivers, among other things, which means that the amount of taxable income for graduate students would include the amount of tuition. For example, a Princeton University graduate student on an Assistantship in 2017 had a $31,100 stipend, and the student would pay $3,246.45 in taxes (assuming no other deductions). If the tuition was included as income, the amount of taxable income would shoot up to $80,040, and the student would end up paying $11,110 in taxes, a 340% increase! Graduate students around the country quickly mobilized and started advocating against this tax provision, including Call Congress Days by the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, and through many similar efforts and interviews (University of Tennessee, Knoxville, NC State, The Tech (MIT), CNBC, NYTimes, Washington Post). The provision was ultimately struck down from the final bill, but this massive mobilization of advocacy showed the amount of sway graduate students can have. 

A recent advocacy effort has been related to the recently passed CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 (in July 2022). This bipartisan bill has been years in the making — you might have heard different iterations of the name, including the “Endless Frontier Act”, the “United States Innovation and Competition Act”, the “NSF For the Future Act”, “COMPETES”, or “CHIPS+” (the most recent iteration that passed). Graduate students have been strong advocates for relevant provisions in the bill, and endorsements by the MIT Graduate Student Council and the CMU Graduate Student Assembly were publicly listed for the NSF For the Future Act, an important visible marker of the influence that we can wield. Many of the provisions we advocated for were included in the final passage of the recently passed bill, such as increasing the number of NSF graduate fellowships, combating sexual harassment in science, expanding requirements for funding proposals to include mentorship plans for graduate students, and expanding research capacity at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), minority serving institutions (MSIs), etc. (see a summary list by Benjamin Lane on Twitter here, or see Sec. 10313 and 10531-10539 in the full bill here)

We had a successful launch event for the GRAD Caucus in Washington D.C. (official launch website, coverage by the Chronicle) on July 13th, which featured remarks from the four co-chairs and two graduate student leaders — Benjamin Lane, graduate student in physics at MIT, and Divyansh Kaushik, graduate student in language and information technologies at CMU. Rep. Lofgren recognized that we have seen strides in scientific innovation “really because of graduate students and institutes of higher learning” and she is “hoping we can use the GRAD Caucus as a center of sensibility” according to Mason Ng, who attended the event and transcribed key remarks. Her sentiments were echoed by the other co-chairs as well. Rep. Bilirakis talked about how “the work of graduate students across the country is paramount” and Rep. Bice said that the caucus is a vehicle to “make comprehensive and strategic innovations in research.” Beyond addressing the crucial role of graduate students in the research landscape, Rep. Doyle also talked about “lowering barriers” for graduate students, particularly acknowledging the “lack of support for health issues.”  

Rep. Doyle also talked about how the “caucus will allow us to continue the education process for new lawmakers” beyond an individual representative’s term, as the House operates on a two-year cycle where members may be replaced by new lawmakers. The establishment of a formal caucus in the House allows for the infrastructure to continue operating long-term.

A group of people dressed in business casual in a building with an American flag in the background.
Caption: GRAD Caucus Launch reception in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington D.C. on July 13, 2022. [From left to right] Katie Jordan (CMU), Divyansh Kaushik (CMU), Rep. Mike Doyle (D, PA-18), Rep. Stephanie Bice (R, OK-5), Jack Reid (MIT), Benjamin Lane (MIT), and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R, FL-12). Missing: Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D, CA-19). Image courtesy of Divyansh Kaushik.

One of the biggest takeaways from all four co-chairs is that they highly encourage fellow lawmakers to join. For the immediate future, we would like to recruit as many lawmakers as possible into the caucus to increase awareness of the roles that graduate researchers play in the research landscape. Please get in touch with your representatives and ask them to join the caucus. We have attached an email template below that you can use to add your voice to the conversation. To get in contact with your representatives, you can go to their official House websites (e.g., for Rep. Katherine Clark) and look for contact details or a contact form. Alternatively, if your institution has access to the National Journal almanac, you can find contact details for staffers that focus on issues of education and/or science and get in touch with them that way. You don’t need to be a U.S. citizen to do this either! Representatives will listen to immigrants and international students who live and work in their districts.

Going forward, the caucus is intended to be a platform for graduate students to advocate for issues that graduate students are concerned about. After the recruitment cycle, caucus organizers plan on having periodic briefings (roughly once a semester) with Congressional staffers and working on legislation that will provide tangible improvements to the lives of graduate students in the country. Potential topics include fellowships, mental health and mentorship, sexual harassment, immigration, research security, and more. While the caucus itself is made up of members of Congress, it needs active support from actual graduate students.  The caucus is actively recruiting participation from graduate students across the country, from professional societies and academic associations, and from additional members of Congress.

If you would like to get involved in planning future briefings, setting legislative advocacy priorities, or engagement with policymakers, please get in touch with [email protected]. You can also join the caucus mailing list here to stay up-to-date with caucus issues and events. International students are also very welcome to participate in the discourse! 

Check out these links to learn more about the U.S. government system:

Astrobite edited by: Briley Lewis, Mike Foley

Featured image credit: Jack Reid and Benjamin Lane on behalf of GRAD Caucus

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Email Template:

Dear [Staffer Name], 

I am [name], a graduate student at [University] in your district [or any other constituency claim; for example, if you’ve lived there before]. I work on [brief sentence on your research] and I would like to point your attention to the recently launched Graduate Research and Development (GRAD) Caucus, a congressional caucus to represent graduate student interests as they are the future of the STEM workforce. A Dear Colleague went out a few weeks ago about it and there was a launch event and reception that featured short remarks from the co-chairs and the graduate leaders. I hope you will consider joining the GRAD Caucus. 

To have your boss added to the caucus, please email [email protected] (Rep. Bice), [email protected] (Rep. Bilirakis), [email protected] (Rep. Lofgren) or [email protected] (Rep. Doyle).

About the caucus:  

Across the nation, there are millions of graduate researchers at universities conducting groundbreaking work in coordination with federal research agencies and the private sector. They mentor undergraduate students, enrich society through the arts and humanities, and are future leaders in nearly every sector through starting companies and forming a globally competitive workforce. Graduate researchers’ impact on our collective understanding of the world and contribution to strengthening our nation’s economy is often overlooked and understated despite the fact that behind every major breakthrough is a current or former graduate researcher. For this reason, it is imperative that graduate student researchers have a congressional caucus that represents their interests.

The GRAD Caucus is co-chaired by Rep. Mike Doyle (PA-18), Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (CA-19), and Rep. Stephanie Bice (OK-5).

For more information, please visit our website.

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