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The Citizen Scientist: A Model for Professional Survival

By P.W. Hammer

This has been quite a century for physicists and the physics profession. The development of modern physics in the early part of this century ushered in major World War II R&D initiatives such as the development of radar and the Manhattan Project. Physicists showed the public that science could make significant contributions to national needs, particularly military security. In the post-War era, especially as the Cold War heated up, the public rewarded physicists and the broader science community with generous funds for research. For half a century the physics profession bloomed, its fruits providing national security and bringing forth a new economic age dominated by silicon- based industries. The technical spillover into other fields such as biotechnology and medicine has had similarly profound economic impacts.

The Cold War ended abruptly, yet significant collateral damage to national economies remains. U.S. victory was bought on credit, leaving the public to reckon with large federal budget deficits and stifling payments on the national debt. These new economic constraints have had two major effects. First, the public, through its elected representatives, seems no longer willing to make the generous, broad-based investments in science and technology that physicists used to take for granted. Second was the Republican revolution in the last Congress, characterized by an anti- government attitude and a lack of experience in governing. These Members were elected on their promise to upend the federal government by slashing spending, eliminating programs (if not whole agencies), and shifting governing responsibility back to the states. The pervasive attitude in Congress has been one of distrust in the federal government and its role in our society.

Additionally, because over one-third of the members of the 105th Congress are in their first or second term (in the last Congress about half were freshmen or sophomores), they lack basic experience and knowledge about governing and the intricacies of how the federal government functions. Congressional inexperience is particularly threatening in areas of science policy, where the science programs being funded are not readily understood by the typical member of Congress and where federal support is critical for these programs to survive.

This does not mean that members of Congress should all be scientists, yet the role of science in national policy does involve technical subtleties and judgement, as well as understanding of how science functions institutionally. A glaring example of this lack of understanding has been the false dichotomy in the recent debate over science versus technology, or basic versus applied research. Most worrisome, however, in this era of budget cutting is that federal spending priorities must be set to higher tolerances. The lack of sophistication among members of Congress about the workings of the federal science infrastructure creates the specter of priorities being set willy-nilly, without much basis in rationality.

This current state of affairs threatens the physics profession and leads me to conclude that the cloistered physicist is a dinosaur. A new generation of citizen scientists is needed to confront the new realities of the post-Cold War era and to address the challenges we face professionally. In the old days, the cloistered scientist was the model, and politics was considered dirty and manifestly unscientific. Life is different now and it is imperative for physicists, individually and collectively, to assume a new, expanded civic role. Citizen scientists are needed to educate members of Congress about the role of science in society and to help set national priorities for federal spending under flat or declining budgets.

Educating members of Congress is best achieved on a personal basis, whereby you as a physicist establish a relationship with your local representatives. There are numerous ways to do this. One is to invite your congressperson to your university to see the lab and talk to students and faculty, to learn about what is happening on campus, and to see how federal dollars are being put to work. Be prepared to talk about why your specific research is useful, but more important is to convey the general usefulness to the country of federally funded scientific research.

Another strategy is to arrange a meeting with your congressperson, either in the district office or on your next trip to Washington. Similarly, your goal would be to talk about the importance of federal investment in R&D in educating the next generation of innovators and for the US to remain competitive in the global economy. You may end up meeting with a staff person, but that is fine. Staff are powerful; they control the message and filter information, and if you ally yourself with a key staffer you will have made great progress toward influencing Congress.

The goal in engaging your representatives should be to establish their confidence in your ability to provide reliable advice on science-related issues. Increasingly, public policy has technical content, yet members of Congress and their staffs are generally not technically trained. Thus, they will readily welcome your help if you provide information and advice in a consumable form. In so doing, recognize that policy making is not rational by scientific standards, and that in politics there are legitimate competing interests. Try to present all sides of an issue, give options, and be willing to accept compromise. Be humble; you may be the expert scientist, but that staffer is the expert policy maker who controls the flow of information you are trying to transmit. Most important, do not forget that your member of Congress serves you. Do not be shy about expressing your opinion by giving positive feedback or conveying your disappointment.

As in research or teaching, being an effective citizen scientist requires education and practice. Preparation is key. There are many resources available through professional societies that provide updates on science policy issues and advice on how to convey your message most effectively. The American Institute of Physics publishes a free electronic newsletter called FYI, which provides weekly updates on science policy in Washington, DC. It can be found on AIP's home page [http://www.aip.org]. Science magazine provides a weekly summary of science policy, both domestic and international, as well as readable summaries of important discoveries across the disciplines. AIP also publishes a useful brochure called "Communicating With Congress." A more comprehensive treatment of the subtleties of Congress and how to communicate in this environment is Working With Congress, by William Wells (AAAS Press, 1996). The APS letter- writing campaign in support of the NSF was organized by its Office of Public Affairs' PGNet program. The APS also coordinates a successful Congressional Visits program.

With practice, your input and advice will make a difference and you will benefit science, our profession, and the society we serve. Furthermore, taking positive action in times of uncertainty can be psychologically beneficial and personally empowering. In many ways, the old models describing science and society are no longer valid. Alternatively, a community of citizen scientists stands an excellent chance of entering the next era strengthened by a new compact with society.

P. W. "Bo" Hammer is Assistant Manager of the AIP Education Division. He was an APS Congressional Science Fellow.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin