Building Champions For Science in Congress: An APS Strategy

By Gregory Mack, APS Government Relations Specialist in the APS Office of Public Affairs

In the current political climate, it is more important than ever to voice the needs of the physics community and foster support for science among members of the U.S. Congress of both political parties. That is the best path for enabling science-friendly legislation that can be passed into law.

To achieve this, the APS Office of Public Affairs (OPA), under the leadership of Interim Director Francis Slakey, is working with APS units with the goal of developing more champions for science in Congress. OPA, the policy and advocacy arm of APS, developed a strategy to achieve this goal in partnership with APS unit leaders at the Leadership Convocation in January.

OPA has identified 37 key members of the U.S. House of Representatives who, based on voting records, could become science champions. Subsequently, OPA determined which APS members are in the representatives' districts as well as the unit affiliation of those APS members. Working with the units, the relevant APS members have been asked to volunteer for this advocacy effort.

Why is there a need for more champions for science in Congress? President Trump's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018 makes significant cuts to federal agencies. In particular, the President wants to increase defense and security spending by $54 billion to $603 billion and consequently other programs — science agencies included — suffer substantial cuts.

The House and Senate will devise their own budget plans in response, and both chambers and the President would have to agree on the numbers in order to have the budget pass and be signed into law. OPA is pushing hard in support of the research budget, but at the same time, it's important to be seeking additional new funding streams for science. There may be an additional source of funding for science projects that could provide some relief: President Trump’s proposed $1 trillion initiative to rebuild the nation’s physical infrastructure.

APS and other scientific societies believe that science infrastructure should be part of the proposed infrastructure initiative. In order to make that happen, more Members of Congress need to be convinced that upgrades to research facilities at national labs and universities should be included. This is the focus of the first step of the APS champion-building strategy. It’s an accessible way to start the conversation with these 37 Republican members and it lays a foundation for discussions of the federal science budget.

Americans rely on the country’s scientific infrastructure — the national laboratories, research facilities at universities, state-of-the-art instrumentation and hardware spread across the country — for the breakthroughs and discoveries that improve everyday lives. The U.S. scientific infrastructure is also essential scaffolding that directly supports more than 17 million jobs.

Under NSF, infrastructure opportunities include the Major Research Instrumentation (MRI), Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC), and Academic Research Infrastructure (ARI) programs. Under the DOE Office of Science, more than $2 billion in projects include the Science Laboratories Infrastructure (SLI) Program and major facility upgrade projects, such as light sources and advanced computing systems. Other opportunities also exist.

As part of APS’s strategic effort, OPA is working with other scientific organizations to draft a document explaining the benefits of including science in the infrastructure initiative. OPA will also help draft a "Dear Colleague Letter" (DCL) that members of Congress can sign to express their support for the inclusion. A DCL serves as an on-the-record stance for the signers and can influence other members of Congress.

The first action of the APS member volunteers in the target districts will be to try to persuade the 37 Representatives to sign this DCL. These specific members of Congress have voted favorably on some science issues in the past, but not consistently. The goal is to have their constituents (the APS members) tell them why they should support science, specifically its inclusion in infrastructure plans — representatives can be convinced if they hear compelling stories from their constituents.

OPA will be assisting the APS members who participate in the effort by providing draft emails, phone call scripts, tweets, and op-eds for local newspapers. For those APS member volunteers who want to hold a meeting in their representatives' local offices, OPA would work with them in various ways to have the most productive meetings possible.

As the APS volunteer advocate network builds on the infrastructure initiative, the Society will broaden the push to include the federal science budget and other science issues, with the ultimate goal of developing science champions.

APS values the work that APS members spend on these activities and recognizes their efforts through profiles in APS News and with an annual award for those who are exceptional in their advocacy: the title "Five Sigma (5σ) Physicist."

It is crucial for members of the physics community to speak up for its needs and priorities. Who else knows those needs better?

If you have any questions about the APS strategy, please contact Greg Mack at mack@aps.org.