APS News

Physics Department Chairs Make Their Case on Capitol Hill

"All politics is local," former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once famously observed. After participating in an APS lobbying day on June 4, physicists Chris Gould and Mary Creason are not about to disagree.

Before they arrived in the nation's capital, Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) had been asked on several occasions to sign a letter circulating in the Senate in support of the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which provides about 65% of all federal support for physics research. On each try, her office was receptive, but when the letter was finalized with 55 signatures on it, hers was not among them.

Enter Gould and Creason, of North Carolina State and Duke Universities, who were in Washington for the APS/AAPT Department Chairs Conference. They met with a member of Senator Dole's staff to explain the importance of a strong federal investment in science-to the nation as a whole, and especially to North Carolina. They described the key role that federally-funded physical science research plays in our economy, health care, and national security, and they also described its importance to scientists at their own universities and others around the state. Indeed, in fiscal year 2002, 240 North Carolina researchers used Office of Science facilities and many more received support in the form of over $12 million in grant funding.

The message got through. Within days, Dole's office had called a key appropriations subcommittee that controls the Office of Science budget and expressed the senator's support. It may seem like a small thing, but in a difficult year, when many federal programs are faced with the possibility of debilitating cuts, seemingly small communications among members of Congress can add up to significant sums when budgets are set.

Tales like this were common among lobbying day participants, who found that members of Congress put the concerns of their constituents above all else. Gould and Creason had a similar experience with Richard Burr (R-NC), a congressman who signed, at their request, a letter circulating in the House supporting the National Science Foundation, and with Brad Miller (D-NC) who signed a House letter supporting the Office of Science. "We found the staffers to be very knowledgeable and receptive—across party lines—to our message of concerns about scientific workforce development, and higher education access," said Gould.

Three Texas physicists who came to the lobbying day got through to two congressmen from their state who had been similarly unresponsive. Ed Fry (Texas A&M—College Station), Dan Suson (Texas A&M—Kingsville), and Scott Yost (Baylor University) met with Congressmen John Carter (R-TX) and Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX) and convinced them to sign the NSF letter; Hinojosa signed the Office of Science letter, too. "The ability to interact with congressional delegations was enlightening," Suson said of his experience. "It gave me insight not only into how a congressional office works, but also how information that goes into making policy is gathered, prioritized, and linked with the needs of other constituents."

Alan Dorsey of the University of Florida, along with David Van Winkle of Florida State, met with a legislative aide to Cliff Stearns (R-FL), a congressman whose district was recently redrawn and who now represents the University of Florida.

In 2002, Stearns voted against an authorization bill that backed large budget increases for the NSF. But when Dorsey described the impact of NSF support on researchers at his university, the aide was visibly impressed. Dorsey hopes that in time, Stearns will come around. "It's a good idea to cultivate relations with our representatives and educate the staffers—who are very young—about science policy and funding issues," he said.

Maria Dworzecka (George Mason University) and Claudia Rankins (Hampton University) convinced Senator George Allen (R-VA), an ally of the science community in the past who did not sign the Office of Science letter this year, to send his own letter of support to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

They also induced Congressman Tom Davis (R-VA), an influential committee chairman, to sign the House letters supporting NSF and the Office of Science. And Harold Hastings (Hofstra University) and Mike Mauel (Columbia University) convinced Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) to sign the House Office of Science letter.

While these immediate successes help demonstrate the importance of constituent contact with Congress, the main purpose of the APS lobbying day was for participants to build long-term relationships with their legislators' offices so that they can go back to them in the future at important junctures in the legislative process. The 25 participants, constituting nearly 30% of the department chairs conference attendees, represented university and college physics departments in 17 states and met with a total of 76 congressional offices.

The APS Office of Public Affairs organized the event and provided a briefing for participants on how to communicate with congressional offices and make the case for science. Participants were given background information and press clippings about the importance of federal research funding to leave with congressional staff, as well as suggested "asks" to make in each of the 76 offices, which varied depending on the legislator's record of support in the past

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette