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Rooney Tackles Wide Range of S&T Issues as Congressional Fellow

Peter Rooney reflects on his year as a legislative assistant in the Congressional office of Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT).

''[This fellowship] is a wonderful experience, even better than I could have anticipated.'' Peter Rooney, 1998 Congressional FellowGrappling with defense R&D issues, supporting efforts to restructure the R&D tax credit, and lobbying to double federal investment in R&D in the decade are just all in a day's work for Peter Rooney, the 1998 APS Congressional Fellow. Rooney spent the past year as a legislative assistant in the Congressional office of Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), lending his technical expertise on a variety of science and technology issues.

Rooney received his PhD in physics from the University of California, San Diego, in 1995, where his research focused on studying the effect of deposition conditions on chemical order in single-crystal, thin-film binary-metal alloys. During graduate school, he obtained valuable experience as a research assistant with two industry-affiliated research centers, stimulating his interest in U.S. industrial competitiveness and its relation to technology-intensive industries. He also has prior experience as both an entrepreneur and pubic service advocate with his local school board, as well as lobbying organization in California on behalf of environmental issues.

Just prior to his fellowship year, Rooney was a program officer for the National Research Council (NRC), with primary responsibility for the management of the annual assessment of technical programs for areas of the National Institute of Standards and Technology that are engaged in physical science and information science research and development. He also served as study director for three different NRC panels: one on planetary protection issues surrounding a possible Mars sample return mission; another evaluating various NASA approaches to managing space science human exploration missions; and a third to examine the status of research and engineering directed toward developing alternative fire suppression agents to replace halons on naval platforms.

These experiences provided valuable background for Rooney as he tackled a broad range of science-related issues as a Congressional Fellow. A significant portion of his time was spent on innovation defense R&D issues related to Senator Lieberman's position as ranking member on the Acquisitions Technology Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over the defense R&D infrastructure.

Another critical thrust was civilian R&D funding, specifically the creation of a bipartisan bill that would double federal research funding over the next 12 years, currently known as S.2217, the Frist-Rockefeller Federal Research Investment Act. While "we did get a bill through the Senate," says Rooney, the effort must begin anew in the next Congress, since "there was no viable House companion bill." Still, he believes that this year's main accomplishment was the building of a coalition of interest groups around the issue. The APS played a crucial role in forming this coalition, along with other professional science and engineering societies (see APS News, January 1998). "The groundwork has been laid [for] increased R&D funding in the next Congress, and it is my expectation that there will be cooperation with both the House and the White House on this issue next year."

Another issue that cropped up during the year was the Research and Experimentation tax credit. Colloquially known as the R&D tax credit, the long-standing program is intended to create incentives for private sector investments; unfortunately, it tends to lapse every few years, according to Rooney. He aided the Lieberman office in lobbying for Senate support of a bill that seeks not only to make the tax credit permanent, but would restructure the program to make it more efficient and accessible. That effort was spearheaded by senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the ranking member on the Senate Joint Economic Committee, and his committee staff. Rooney also briefly found himself involved in the debate on digital copyright issues for databases.

Rooney was encouraged by his observation of both increased Congressional interest in science and technology issues, and increased levels of scientific literacy as a result of that growing interest. He sees "a growing recognition that the high- tech sector of the economy is in fact very important." As an example, he points to Texas, where employment in the high tech sector is currently almost 10 times that of the oil industry, as well as numerous other states that have traditionally been aligned with heavy manufacturing or agriculture and are moving into software and telecommunications. "Eventually that seeps into the Members' consciousness," he says, "So there's a perception that because of the way the economy is developing, science and technology issues are going to be very important in policy making."

Overall, Rooney pronounced his fellowship year "a wonderful experience, even better than I could have anticipated," and praised the experience, professionalism, effectiveness and strong involvement in science issues of Senator Lieberman and his Congressional staff. Rooney intends to remain involved in the science policy arena, preferably on Capitol Hill. "I love what I'm doing now and would love to remain in this arena," he said.

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. This is deemed important because public policy increasingly is determined by technical considerations, and science is a major component of many issues with which Congress must grapple: global warming, energy policy, defense technologies, AIDS, pollution, communications technologies, to name a few. In turn, the program enables scientists to broaden their experience through direct involvement with the legislative and political processes, which ideally will enhance not only their own careers, but the physics community's ability to communicate more effectively with its representatives in Congress.

If you are interested in becoming a Congressional Fellow, visit the Congressional Fellowships page. The application deadline is January 15, 1999.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin