United States Capitol Building view from the Senate side
A view of the Capitol dome from the entrance to the Capitol Visitors Center

The nuts and bolts of what I do when thinking about math are very similar to the nuts and bolts of thinking about a policy problem…

Math Meets Congress

Or, A Mathematician Goes to Washington

Courtney Gibbons
Hamilton College

The author on the Dirksen train
A train leaves the Dirksen Senate Office Building heading toward the Capitol traveling at fourteen miles per hour…

Thanks to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and their Science and Technology Policy Fellowships, I’ve spent the last year working for Senator Gary C. Peters with the majority staff of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (HSGAC, which we pronounce “HISS-gack”). Broadly speaking, my portfolio has lived in the “Governmental Affairs” realm. I’ve had a chance to work on things related to federal grants and cooperative agreements, federal data policies, artificial intelligence—and math! Especially the mathematics and statistics that power different kinds of AI systems (and why the math is relevant to the policy).

I’ve had the opportunity to serve in the Senate at the same time as Duncan Wright, the American Mathematical Society Congressional Fellow, worked in Senator Young’s office. Duncan tells me he’ll be writing about his experiences soon, too!

Duncan Wright
Dr. Duncan Wright, the AMS Congressional Fellow, hanging out with my family and our Senator-in-training and part-time dinosaur impersonator

One of the most thrilling aspects of working for the United States Senate has been using my training as a mathematical problem-solver to work on public policy problems (what can I say, I’m easy to thrill), in a very different way than following a traditional path like being an NSF rotator or working for the DOD in some capacity.

In my “normal” life, I work on problems in commutative and homological algebra—not exactly the most sought-after technical knowledge in Congress. But the nuts and bolts of what I do when thinking about math are very similar to the nuts and bolts of thinking about a policy problem or solution.

For example, when I say that I think about “rings and modules” to another mathematician, we have to achieve some clarity to keep communicating. To me, “ring” means unital, commutative, probably Noetherian, and almost certainly local or graded with a unique homogeneous maximal ideal. When I say “module,” I mean finitely generated. Change any of those properties, and the tools I use—like Nakayama’s Lemma—are off the table.

It’s the same in policy. When I started, I jumped on one of the office priorities: simplifying and coordinating the federal grant application process for recipients (and applicants, and potential applicants, and…). The first thing my mentor had me do was find the 1970s legislation that defines what financial assistance from the government means. And just like the word “ring” comes with many flavors of adjectives now, the word “grant” does, too. Is it a competitive grant? A formula grant? Is it for basic research? Disaster relief? I very quickly needed experts to help me understand the nuances.

Luckily for me, Congress has many experts: analysts at the Congressional Research Service and auditors at the Government Accountability Office investigate topics at the request of Congress, and many, many, many people have asked for reports and analyses of grants policies. Senator Peters held a hearing on grants to learn about the issue from people with additional hard-won insights they’ve collected after years (in some cases, careers!) of navigating the systems and processes required to get, use, and report on a grant.

A baby on a hearing dais with a Senator at the witness table
Senator Peters also hosted the best-ever Take Your Kids to Work “Hearing”

Eventually, my teammates and I started looking for existing solutions to problems that might work in this situation, and, just like algebraists borrowed Betti numbers from topologists to study invariants of rings and modules, we started borrowing from other policy areas to put together some options.

Like math papers, potential legislation goes through a kind of peer review called “technical assistance” where people provide feedback on the bill text. And, like peer review, navigating different (sometimes conflicting) suggestions makes it interesting to figure out how to move forward. (The first idea I had got the equivalent of a bright red REJECT stamp from some external parties, but with lots of helpful feedback that informed my next attempt.  Helpful review is truly a wonderful gift!)

The next steps for legislation include finding cosponsors, introducing the bill, shepherding it through the markup process where the committee with jurisdiction over the legislation has a chance to debate and change it, and eventually get it to the floor of the Senate; then it goes to the House; then, hopefully, it gets signed into law.  I’ve only been here since October, so I will only see the bills I worked on through part of their journey. Like my math research work, it’s unclear which ideas, if any, will make it to the end of the process (or if I’ll recognize them when they do). But it’s been a gratifying experience to see up close how one Senate office (from the staff to the boss himself!) approaches the work of making the country a better place. The people I’ve worked with have renewed my hope and confidence in this country’s strange and byzantine processes.  And I’ll keep my eye on S. 2286, the Streamlining Federal Grants Act, with the same tenderness I feel for my best and most fun mathematical collaborations.

Stepping from math professor life into Senate staffer life (at the same time as becoming a mom!) has been a strange but rewarding change-up.  Take it from me: it’s never too late (or too early) to start finding your way to policymaking. Thanks to this fellowship and all the different policy areas I had a chance to learn about and work on, every night I went home thinking about policy in ways that made my neurons tingle just like when I’m in math mode.

A baby with a "Senator's Briefcase" plush toy
My future Senator arranging his policy priorities

And, reader, aside from your tenacity in thinking about problems, you probably also have practitioner expertise as a working mathematician. Congress has a lot of opinions about what kinds of scientific activities (including research!) matter. Think math is apolitical? Think again! In 2020, a major piece of legislation (Pub. L. 116-283) required NSF to collaborate with other agencies and industry partners to create AI Research Institutes, determine the feasibility of a National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource, study the artificial intelligence workforce, and more. The new TIP directorate at NSF? You guessed it: Congress! The CHIPS and Science Act (Pub. L. 117-167) has an entire title devoted to telling the NSF how to prioritize its work. Someone, somewhere, needs you to speak up on behalf of math and its value.

I’ll vouch for Congress as a productive place to be that voice.  (Did I mention they have trains?)

United States Senate Seal
E Pluribus Unum

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