APS News

Congressional Visits Foster Communication Between Physicists and the Hill

Sixteen APS members descended on the nation's capital during cherry blossom season in April to participate in Congressional visits that were intended to foster communication between the physics community and their Congressional representatives, to educate Congress about the importance of science funding, and to acquaint researchers with the legislative process.

John Clarke (University of California, Berkeley), chair of the Division of Condensed Matter Physics, discussed the role of physics in the economy, medicine, education, and the future prosperity of the U.S. Frances Hellman (University of California, San Diego), past chair of the Division of Materials Physics, also addressed the importance of science funding as an investment in the national economy, and provided staffers with information packets on how physics has impacted our daily lives, and the potential of nanotechnology.

Patricia Mooney (IBM/T.J. Watson Research Center), the current DMP chair, extended the theme to focus on how developments in medical technology often depend upon developments in other fields, such as telecommunications or information technology, or derive from fundamental work in physics and chemistry, as was the case with MRI. She also discussed the importance of having a balanced budget program for research in the various agencies. And while special initiatives, such as the proposed nanotechnology initiative (see APS News, May 2000), are also important, "The core programs need to be supported as well, to ensure there is a pool of active scientists to draw from for such initiatives, which are multidisciplinary and also short term," she says.

Some participants focused on more specific regional concerns that they could personally address in detail. For example, Mark Coffey of the University of Colorado, Boulder, discussed the heavy reliance of the aerospace industry on both fundamental science and technological advances with the Colorado congressional delegation, since the state has a sizable presence of several of the nation's largest aerospace contractors. Such aerospace firms, along with many other high technology companies in the area, also have substantial investments and interest in the latest computing technologies and algorithms.

Most participants surveyed felt the experience was useful and said they would participate again, although Clarke believes there should be more ongoing follow-up after the visits themselves."Such an effort is incremental, and above all entails initiating and establishing a rapport with staffers, congresspersons, and a variety of others," agrees Coffey, who decided to participate to extend his knowledge of how the legislative process works. "The scientific interests of constituents need to be confirmed, and we need to communicate that we care about R&D funding." He believes this type of first-hand knowledge and experience of how Congress works is especially critical in a presidential election year. "Next year's new administration will bring manifold changes, to national priorities on economic, technological, educational defense, environmental, health and medical, social and other fronts," he says.

There were some suggestions for improvement. Coffey said he would appreciate more lead time to prepare for the Congressional visits in the future, and also suggested increasing the participation of the APS Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics to help emphasize the theme of how basic science can fuel the national economy. "It would be very helpful to have more information ahead of time to better prepare for these visits," agrees Mooney.

Both Mooney and Clarke believe the APS could to have a better internal organization system to help participants with the logistics, such as hotels and scheduling visits themselves with Senators and members of Congress. "I am sure more people would attend the Congressional visits day if it were easier to figure out what to do," Clarke says. Hellman agrees: "The APS could be of more help, because none of us really knows how to do this."

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette