APS News

Panel Stresses Communication with Congress

By Calla Cofield

At the APS April Meeting in Atlanta, a panel of physicists agreed that America’s position as an international leader in science might be slipping away. The panel, which featured high-ranking officials in the Department of Energy, the former director of the National Science Foundation and a Nobel laureate, urged physicists to participate more in the policy making process and communicate with the public.

“There are some facts and figures that are very disturbing, which show the United States might be losing ground in science and discovery, whereas other countries are gaining,” said moderator Pushpa Bhat, a physicist at Fermi Accelerator National Laboratory (Fermilab), at the panel’s press conference. “We can’t sit back and watch … so how do we strengthen and enhance the science and technology enterprise in the US, so that we compete [and] prosper?”

Bhat cited possible reasons for the shift, which are familiar to many physicists: fewer graduates in STEM fields, reduced federal funding for basic research, and private research and development divisions moving overseas. The session aimed to identify the new problems facing science, but many of the solutions have yet to become clear. Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek emphasized the need to keep scientific borders open, particularly to students from outside the US. DOE’s Associate Director for High Energy Physics, Jim Siegrist, and Associate Director for Nuclear Physics of the DOE Office of Science Tim Hallman emphasized the need for scientists to increase communication with the public, and optimize shrinking budgets. But in these tight financial times, it seems physicists wish to do more to encourage change. One audience member asked, “What can working physicists, those who don’t wish to dedicate their careers to a job in policy or politics, do to get involved in the national politics that affect science?”

Panelist Neal Lane, who served as Science Advisor to President Clinton, and also as Director of the National Science Foundation, emphasized the importance of encouraging and guiding young people with an interest in politics and policy; in his talk he highlighted the many physicists in important policy positions and the influence they have on the national science climate. There are summer internship opportunities for students (listed, for example, at www.science-policy.net/11627.html); for PhD level scientists, APS, AIP and AAAS offer fellowships to work in congressional offices in Washington D.C. for a year.

But physicists who have completed postdoctoral work or those with families often find it difficult to move to Washington for a year. And what can former Fellows do once they return home? If national budgets and science policy are determined by those in Washington, what power do physicists have in their local districts to inform politicians and policy makers, and influence their decisions? It is important to recall the famous words of Tip O’Neill, “All politics is local.”

“We are a representative democracy. We elect representatives to represent our views,” says Brian Mosley, Grassroots Manager in the APS Office of Public Affairs in Washington. “In order for representatives to do that, they need to hear from their constituency.”

Each year at the APS general meetings, Mosley, with other APS staff, can be found at a bank of computers labeled “Contact Congress”, where they ask attendees to sign a letter to their Senators and Representatives. For Mosley, it makes for long days, but he understands the importance of getting physicists involved. Mosley echoes a concern of many science lobbyists, policy makers and science communicators: that physicists are not communicating with their Congressional representatives as much as other groups do.

“There’s a sense among some scientists that funding through NSF or the Department of Energy is so obviously good for the country that it should happen regardless of whether scientists ask for it. And that’s just not true,” said Alex Saltman, former APS Congressional Fellow and Executive Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “The American people, through members of Congress, continuously need reminders that what the scientists are doing is important.”

After his APS Fellowship with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) Saltman worked on Schiff’s staff as legislative director for four years. Saltman says that the most direct and perhaps the most powerful way for working physicists to influence national politics is through their own representatives. It is, after all, the votes of the local constituents that determine whether representatives are re-elected.

When meeting with congressional representatives, Lane argues that physicists “need to be clear about what they want,” such as support for a specific bill, budget item, or an agency that brings jobs to a district. But there is also the need to establish long-term relationships with representatives and their staff.

“You’re not going to walk in and get a commitment from [your representative] to spend 600 million on your experiment,” said Judy Jackson, former Director of Communications at Fermilab. “What you want is to begin to have the kind of relationship with this member and his or her staff so that when you really need them you know who they are, and you’re not just coming to them in your hour of need. You don’t want to give them a jargon-filled 40 pages for them to read. It’s just as if you were wanting to create a relationship with anyone; you want to think about how can you reach them on their terms.”

Jackson pointed to the turnover in Illinois’s 14th Congressional District as a case study of how physicists acting locally can impact national policy. In 2008, Bill Foster (D), a former Fermilab physicist, won the congressional seat in the district encompassing Fermilab, the largest high energy physics laboratory in the United States. Physicists rejoiced. Then in 2010, Foster lost the election to Randy Hultgren (R). Hultgren might have felt unwelcome at the laboratory; he had, after all, replaced one of their own. But Fermilab welcomed Hultgren with open arms. Today, says Jackson, “you could not find a more ardent supporter of Fermilab and particle physics than this conservative Republican representative.”

To better communicate with Congress, scientists can join science coalitions, which unite multiple organizations to target specific topics of concern, such as the Coalition for National Science Funding (see a list of coalitions at www.aps.org/policy/tools/coalitions/). Many large labs and universities, through their communications and/or government offices, will provide employees with resources and opportunities to communicate with Congress. Physicists can also contact their member organizations for help in preparing for meetings with their Congressional representatives. Physicists can set up meetings in the Congress person’s local or Washington office, bring up issues at town hall meetings, or meet them at community events. In addition to talking to the representatives, it is always important to communicate and develop relationships with local and Washington staff as well.

“It’s important that there be people in the Congress who, despite all of this noise about all of these other issues, spend a little time thinking about the science,” said Lane. “It sounds a little self- serving talking with them about science, but nobody else is going to do it for us.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos