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Michels Gains Broader Perspective During Fellowship Year

Grappling with a changing economic climate for science, and seeking to foster bipartisan discussion on controversial science and technology related issues are just a few of the challenges faced by Joseph Michels, who spent the past year learning the ins and outs of Washington politics firsthand as an APS Congressional Fellow. The APS Congressional Fellowship program is intended to provide a public service by making available individuals with scientific knowledge and skills to members of Congress, few of whom have a technical background. In turn, the program enables scientists to broaden their experience through direct involvement with the legislative and political processes.

Michels elected to spend his fellowship year as a legislative assistant in the Congressional office of Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), who has long been active in science and technology issues on Capitol Hill. Lieberman is currently the ranking Democrat on the Acquisitions and Technology Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which oversees nearly all of defense research and helps direct U.S. strategic relationships with other countries. "I wanted to combine my interest in business and trade with an international component," said Michels of his reasons for selecting Lieberman's office. "This was a way to have science and technology integrated into an economic and strategic interest, rather than just to be an isolated fellow working on esoteric issues that really didn't fit into anything else the office was doing."

One of Michels' first activities as a Fellow was to help organize a bipartisan science and technology caucus last February, in conjunction with the offices of Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM), Bill Frist (R-TN) and John Rockefeller (D-WV). "The intent was to advance the debate on federal involvement in science funding from the partisan wars of the 104th Congress, namely, at what point does federal spending constitute corporate welfare, picking winners and losers among competing companies," he said. The three-hour caucus heard from a panel of 11 experts including former Under Secretary for Technology, Dr. Mary Good, IBM Senior Vice President for Research Dr. Paul Horn, and Dr. Charles M. Vest, President of MIT. Several months later, the four Caucus Senators banded together to help resolve Congressional conflict over the Advanced Technology Program (ATP).

According to Michels, the ATP was a relatively obscure program initiated during the Bush Administration, intended to develop an industry-driven national R&D effort by funding research at businesses involved in attacking problems related to manufacturing or production. When President Clinton took office, he touted the program as a new model for federal research and development efforts and sought a sharp increase in funding. With a raised profile, the ATP became the object of bitter partisan strife, with some members of Congress holding it up as an example of the government funneling money to large corporations and interfering in the marketplace.

In order to break the logjam, a 60-day review was requested, and during that period the four senators participating in the February science and technology caucus drafted some suggestions for changes in the ATP that would keep the integrity and goals of the program intact while ensuring that it remained "pre-competitive" by only funding projects before any one company has a proprietary interest in them. Most significantly, grants will only be made to consortia, with the aim of fostering alliances between academia and industry, and large companies are not eligible to be single applicants. The final verdict on the program is still out, but "I think this will prove to be a success story," said Michels. "There are still some senators who are never going to love this program, but it's certainly easier for them to swallow now, as well as being more focused in its mission."

Michels also worked preparing testimony on declining procurement budgets for defense-related R&D for Senator Lieberman to present to the Acquisitions and Technology Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "There didn't seem to be a clear effort within the Department of Defense to support research and industrial collaborations that would help ensure that we retain our lead in semiconductor manufacturing by remaining at the cutting edge of the technology," said Michels.

As an example, he points to the U.S. semiconductor industry, which was bolstered substantially in the early 1980s by DARPA's orchestrated effort with SEMATECH to build a consortium of semiconductor manufacturers and equipment makers. While it didn't single-handedly save the industry, the effort certainly contributed to its current prosperity, as did the previous decades of DOD investment in mathematics, computer science and thin film fabrication, among other areas. But interest has waned at a time when, says Michels, investment is more important than ever to national security, especially as the nature of warfare continues to change. "To succeed in this new environment, we need to dominate information technology," he said.

Michels says he has gained a broader perspective on the scientific enterprise as a result of his fellowship year. Instead of focusing his energies on one small area of research, he was asked to view R&D across the full spectrum of U.S. science and technology efforts, encompassing universities, national laboratories, and industry. While his background in semiconductor physics and entrepreneurial experience certainly served him well, he still had to familiarize himself with the complex area of defense research. "It's a whole different world than civilian research, with a very directed mission, in that it must contribute to the strategic interests of U.S. national security," he said.

He also gained a greater appreciation and understanding of how the context in which the science and technology establishment operates has changed from World War II to the end of the Cold War. "Today, it's important to view science and technology as contributing to an innovation cycle incorporating America's competitiveness, to its national defense, and to the well-being and high standard of living enjoyed by the American people," he said. "That argument must be made in order to justify the current levels of funding. It must be viewed as an investment, rather than an entitlement."

Michels received his B.S. in physics, with a minor in English, from LaSalle University in 1986, and his D.Phil. in experimental condensed matter physics from Oxford University's Pembroke College in 1994. Prior to his fellowship year, he was employed by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which in collaboration with Universita di Firenze in Italy, developed the ultraviolet coronograph spectrometer (UVCS) aboard the Solar and Heliospheric (SOHO) satellite. Based at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Michels helped develop the observing plan for the UVCS instrument, as well as participating in the ongoing research in solar physics by SOHO instruments. A member of the U.S. team for the 1987 Pan American Games, and a contender for the 1988 and 1992 Olympics in rowing, he also rowed for Oxford in the annual boat race against Cambridge, a national event in England that garners worldwide media attention. Two years before commencing his studies at Oxford, Michels was a founding partner of This Old House Renewed, a self-started and managed renovation firm in Philadelphia.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin