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BTI Board Member April Burke champions for science on Capitol Hill

by | Apr 18, 2018

April Burke

April L. Burke joined the BTI Board in 2015.

For more than thirty years, April Burke has worked to ensure the science and not-for-profit sectors have a voice in our nation’s capital.

Providing organizations with an insider’s perspective into the workings of Congress, Burke offers professional analysis of the D.C. landscape. Nearly three years ago, she brought that expertise to BTI thrugh joining the Board of Directors.

Since many perceive it to be an especially tumultuous time in Washington, BTI’s Keith Hannon sat down with April to hear about the current political climate and how research institutes like BTI stand to be impacted by changes in funding and potential legislation.

Q: Washington is known as a place defined by insiders and connections. Was it a challenge to break through the D.C. bubble on behalf of the science community?  

April: I think it’s interesting that a person like me, can come to Washington with no particular talent or connections and make a whole life out of supporting academic institutions and their relationships with the federal government and be successful at that. There’s no real rules, here. This idea that you need to know everybody or have a lot of money and be connected, that’s really not how 99nt% of things get done at the national level. It’s more of a meritocracy than it looks like it is. If you get good at it, if you learn your stuff, you know your area, you will be a player in that area. You will be influential. For the first 10-15 years I was in this space, I thought of myself as an underdog. I felt as a woman I had a hard time being taken seriously and being seen as effective. It was only the last 5 or so years that I realized I’m not the underdog anymore and we’re actually the top firm in our space.

Q: Is this Washington that you describe a good environment for advancing the work of BTI?

April: Content drives more things here than it looks like it does, which bodes well for a place like BTI. BTI has a very clear mission, it has a great track record, people can understand what we’re doing there, and politically the field is different. A large university doesn’t necessarily dwarf a BTI in politics. An American voice is an American voice and it’s as equal to any other voice. So you need to get in there and speak up, I think that’s what the board is turning its attention to, paying more attention to the BTI voice. We knew what it was internally and thought it was a well-kept secret, but we don’t want it to be a secret.

Q: You don’t seem to have an abundance of time on your hands, so why join the BTI Board?

There’s two answers to that. There’s what I get out of it and there’s what BTI gets out of me. So, I represent all of these research institutions, but I actually don’t know anything about how the governance is carried out. I was very curious to understand that governance and see it up close. David Stern and I had a lot of mutual interactions and I really wanted to be supportive of David because he’s been supportive of me.  So, when he asked me, I thought it was a really good idea. What David was looking for was, how do we project ourselves as players, nationally? I think he felt I could bring that perspective to the board. We’re not a very big group, the board and the staff, so we can actually have real interactions and help each other out. So, I get to learn more about the fiduciary duties that boards have and how they’re carried out, and BTI gets from me this national perspective and a way to project BTI so it can punch above its weight, politically.

Q: When you listen to the news and read political chatter, one may feel pessimistic about how science is being treated by our current representatives. Is that the reality you’re witnessing?

April: When you look at politics from the external view, it looks so shady. There’s so much money, people make so many promises to each other, and it’s hard to imagine decisions get made based on real capabilities, integrity, and what’s best for the taxpayer…but most of the time they do. In a space where non-profits are using federal money to conduct basic research, there are very few politicians who try to micromanage that, or question whether it’s a good use of money. We’re in a favorable situation when we seek funds for science, generally.

Q: Is there a strategy for getting on the radar of local representatives in hopes of earning their support?

April: What makes members of congress enthusiastic about appropriating money for science is when they know their local scientific organizations. You might say to yourself ‘oh, these small independent research institutes, I’m sure no one pays any attention to them,’ that’s really not true. You can really characterize your institute and the commitment it has to science in a way that converts that member of congress to become a supporter. I think that’s heartening to know.

Q: How did funding for science do in the recently approved budget? 

April: It all went up and some of it went up significantly. However, there are parts of the Department of Health and Human Services that used to fund a lot of social science research to understand behavioral decision making, for example, the evidence of needle exchange programs. There are parts of the current administration that don’t want to fund evidence-based social programs, because it supports social programs they disapprove of.   

Q: If funding is going up, why does the “March for Science” persist?

April: The March for Science is not really about the money, it’s about treating evidence as disinformation. It’s more about the environment and the EPA, but not environment at a basic agency. There’s nothing wrong with environmental research funding at the NSF. It’s mostly EPA, and it’s not really funding, it’s the decisions to devalue the evidence for the regulatory decisions agencies make. I think we still need a March for Science, but it’s not about defunding science at science agencies.  

Q: How would you summarize the current relationship between funding agencies and researchers?

April: One of the interesting things about scientific research being funded by the federal government is the relationship between the funding agencies and the outside research. It’s a very complex relationship because the outside performers of the research are where the brains are and that’s really where the value of the taxpayer money is being demonstrated. But if the bureaucracy wasn’t in place and didn’t have the integrity of the system at heart, there wouldn’t be any outcome. So, there’s a tension between the researchers and the bureaucrats who feel they’ve structured the programs and they’re the ones deciding how to spend the money, and they never get any of the credit for the outcome. The external community feels they germinate the ideas, and then they bring the ideas to the federal bureaucracy, then they beg the bureaucracy to carry out a program efficiently so those activities get taken care of. So, they don’t think the bureaucracy has much of a role to play. That tension is very high right now because science bureaucrats feel the chaos of the Trump administration undermining the value of their agencies, and then they see the external community continuing to take credit and to be able to populate their agencies with funding despite the limitations of the agencies. This creates resentment. We’re seeing a lot of resentment between performers of research and their sponsoring agencies. 

Q: When you forecast the future of federal funding, do you see BTI being well positioned for future success?

April: From an investigator initiated science perspective, we’re in very good shape. My biggest advice to the board has been, to me, it looks like a lot of federally funded science is computational. Playing not just as a user of data, but actually a generator of data and a manager of data, is going to be a necessity. So that’s a challenge for a small place. Luckily, BTI has a president who understands this and has positioned himself very well in the scientific community.

We thank April for taking a brief pause from lobbying for science to join BTI and wish to offer our sincere appreciation for the invaluable perspective she brings to the BTI Board of Directors.

Contact:

Boyce Thompson Institute
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contact@btiscience.org