Alarmed by the prospects for aspiring physicists, a senior student at Georgetown University launched a Congressional letter writing campaign in May through the Society of Physics Students (SPS) to enlist students in a grassroots effort to secure their own futures.
A combined physics and government major who plans to pursue graduate study in public policy at Rutgers University, Daniel Benson conceived of the campaign as his senior project, fueled by his growing concern over declining federal funding for science and what he perceived to be a corresponding "anti-science" atmosphere in Washington. As the scientific community began to speak out in defense of science, "I thought there needed to be an equal effort on the part of the science majors, the students," he said. Georgetown's physics department sponsored the effort.
After receiving approval from the American Institute of Physics to use their nationwide SPS mailing list, Benson sent letters to the presidents of all SPS chapters asking them to rally their members to write letters to their Congressional representatives in support of increased science funding, through such legislation as Senator Phil Gramm's proposed National Research Investment Act, for example, which proposes a 7% increase in science funding each year for ten years. "Don't let Congress balance the budget by sacrificing your future," his letter admonished. He is still waiting for word on the response nationwide from the various SPS chapters.
Similar letters and accompanying background materials were sent to all Georgetown physics majors, and Benson wrote an article on the subject for the student newspaper. While response overall was positive on campus, Benson admits that, given their tight schedules, "it's hard to get [students] to write letters. It was more successful than I was expecting, but not as successful as it could have been."
However, he did receive strong support from students enrolled in a new course on science and public policy, recently instituted by the physics department, and believes the campaign was especially useful in terms of educating students about how their government operates. "One of the main reasons for doing this was just to get the undergraduates to start thinking about their voice in Congress," he said. "It's been extremely successful in letting people know that there are decisions being made that affect their future, and they need to be alert and notify their representatives about what their wishes are."
Benson is following up the initial mailing with a similar mailing to science professors, but is concerned that recent positive developments on the federal funding front could hinder his efforts. "A lot of people are now reading that things are looking up and figure it's being done for them," he said. "But it's only the authorization that's underway now, we haven't actually gotten the appropriations bills out. So there still needs to be an effort. People need to understand this crucial difference."
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