APS News

Department Chairs Confer, Drop In On Congress

Department Chairs
Photo Credit: Bernard Khoury
One hundred eleven physics department chairs from around the country convened at APS headquarters in early June for the biennial Physics Department Chairs' Conference sponsored by APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). The conference focused on education and outreach, with talks ranging from how to increase the number of physics majors to how to prepare future high-school physics teachers. Shown in the photo is David Hertzog of the University of Illinois who spoke about his department's program to teach research and communication skills to undergraduates. On June 7, in a special session, conference participants heard from Presidential Science Advisor Jack Marburger and Director of the Department of Energy's Office of Science Raymond Orbach.

Several of those who attended the conference took advantage of being in the nation's capital and spent one day visiting with their Congressional representatives. The visits were organized by the APS Office of Public Affairs, and participants were provided with briefing materials and other information to assist them in conveying their interests to Congress. They predominantly focused on the issue of improved funding for science research through the NSF and the DOE Office of Science. In particular, they asked senators to support the Senate version of the recently approved House resolution [H.R. 4664] that authorizes the doubling of NSF's funding over the next five years [See APS News, July 2002]. For the Office of Science, department chairs lobbied on behalf of a 17% increase in funding.

Chris Stanton, who chairs the physics department at the University of Florida, talked to staffers for both of his senators and his Congressional representative, and found them to be professional, educated about the issues, and receptive to his input. "The physical sciences need to do a better job getting their message across to Congress," he says. "It's easy to assume someone else will do it, and the APS Washington office has been doing a terrific job, but I think it's important enough that we department chairs/members should begin assuming responsibility for it ourselves."

Robert Jacobsen, acting physics department chair at the University of California, Berkeley, admits to some strong skepticism about the potential impact of participating in Congressional visits. OPA staffers pointed out that as few as eight visiting constituents is considered significant contact for any Congressional office. And it quickly became clear to Jacobsen that the staffers welcomed his input.

Besides being skeptical, Jacobsen admits he was a bit nervous about dealing with a Congressional office for the first time. "I had impressions of grand old men in suits, and I don't even own a suit. But nobody I talked to was over 25," he says. He compared the experience to a college seminar in which the students "are genuinely interested in the subject, but they don't have time to do lots of homework."

APS members who would like to arrange a visit with their Congressional representatives should contact the APS Office of Public Affairs, 202-662-8700, opa@aps.org.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette