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Public Affairs Assumes an Expanded APS Role

by Michael S. Lubell, Acting Director of Public Affairs

With its call for abolishing three Cabinet departments, eliminating hundreds of federal programs and making massive cuts in government spending, the new majority in the House of Representatives has set Washington reeling. In such an electrified atmosphere, the APS Washington Office has found itself drawn into the vortex of budget and strategy debates that would challenge even the most seasoned policy makers.

Although the APS could not have prepared itself completely for the fallout of the 1994 election results, the Washington Office has responded quickly to the rapid changes in the federal landscape. Assisted by the Panel on Public Affairs and the Physics Planning Committee, it has developed political analyses, position papers, briefing documents and strategies that cover a range of science policy issues currently under discussion in Congress and within the Clinton Administration.

In many respects, the 1995 activities of the Washington Office are breaking new ground for the APS. For most of its history, the society has concentrated on disseminating scholarly scientific information to its membership. And while this function remains its prime responsibility, the APS has become increasingly sensitive to the need for participating in public discussions on a variety of technical subjects. During the last two decades, for example, the Society has conducted studies on nuclear power safety and directed energy weapons. It has also adopted positions on issues such as the alleged dangers of low-level electromagnetic fields, the scientific merit of the space station and freedom of scientific information.

Partly in response to the dramatic science policy changes caused by the end of the Cold War, the APS has recently extended its public policy activities to include governmental affairs. The composition of the 104th Congress makes the need for such an extension even more compelling. Of the fifty members of the House Science Committee, for example, twenty-three are new, and most have little background in science or technology. Furthermore, the scores of new faces on Capitol Hill include the congressional staff, in addition to the elected representatives. Scientific and technical knowledge, always rare under the best of circumstances, is nonexistent today in many congressional offices.

The sharp cuts in federal spending, outlined in the House and Senate Budget Resolutions, and the accompanying calls for eliminating the Departments of Energy and Commerce heighten the need for representatives and senators to have accurate information about the value of the federal investment in science and technology - to the nation as a whole and to their individual states and districts in particular.

To help educate Members of Congress and their staffs on science and technology issues, the APS has enlarged its Congressional Visitors program and added several hundred new participants to its Physics and Government Network (PGNET). Recruitment efforts at the March, April and May meetings have helped popularize both programs. Using the APS data base, the Washington Office has also been able to identify and notify Society members who are constituents of representatives and senators serving on committees and subcommittees that have jurisdiction over science and technology. To date, the APS membership response to the electronic notification has been overwhelmingly favorable.

The next five years will challenge the physics community to do more with less and to continue to justify to the public the worth of its endeavors. Science researchers and educators, alike, will have to compete with performers in many other areas for scarce public and private dollars. With the help of programs like the APS University/Industry/Government Roundtables, academic and industrial scientists will have to bridge the cultural gaps that currently divide them. The Washington Office urges all APS members to participate as fully as possible in the public affairs activities of the Society. Director of Public Information Bob Park, Associate Director of Public Affairs Francis Slakey and I look forward to receiving your suggestions and your offers of help. Call us at (202) 662-8700; fax us at (202) 662-8711; send us e-mail at opa@aps.org; but please get involved!

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin