It Isn’t Rocket Science – But it IS Physics (And Materials Science and Computer Science)

September 27, 2011

IPad Sign

Although the science community understands the critical link between federal funding for early stage research and life-changing products on the market, most members of Congress and their staff do not.  This unfortunate void has led to threats to slash federal science budgets at a time when they should be increasing to reinforce the U.S. innovation ecosystem.

Cue the Task Force on American Innovation and, well, me.[1]

The current fiscal and political environments in Washington caused us to modify our approach to Congress by underscoring why science needs to be bolstered and NOT cut during this difficult time.  I thought it would make sense to sponsor a congressional staff briefing that would take a popular item and “deconstruct” it into parts that could be traced to federally -funded basic scientific research.

That led me to the IPad.  It’s funky.  It’s sexy.  It’s cool.  And, it turns out that many members of Congress rely on this product to keep their jam-packed schedules on target.

I approached Texas Instruments (TI) and the Computing Research Association (CRA) for help.  We decided that our audience should be House freshman class – those who likely knew the least about the federal funding-science connection since they were new to the political scene.

These folks – and many others – believe that Steve Jobs, as brilliant as he is, invented the components of the iPhone, iPad and other Apple products.  The intent of the briefing was to disabuse them of this notion, to let them know that it was funding from the Federal government that resulted in these and many other innovations.

We persuaded the Task Force to support the event and then identified the IPad components we would focus on: the GPS, the integrated circuit and the touch screen.  We then had to find technical experts who could speak in laymen’s terms to non-scientist types about the origins of these innovations.

The lucky winners of that lottery:

Luis von Ahn, the inventor of the beloved (not!) “REcaptcha” program who moderated the discussion;  Nobelist and APS member Bill Phillips, who spoke about the origins of the GPS from the atomic clock;  TI scientist and researcher Martin Izzard who educated the audience on the integrated circuit; and Ben Bederson, son of renowned physicist Ben Bederson Sr. and co-founder of app creators Zumobi, who addressed the topic of the human-computer interface, specifically, the touch screen.

Held on Sept. 21, the event was hosted by two freshman members of Congress – Rep. Ben Quayle, who chairs the House Science Committee Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation; and Rep. Randy Hultgren, who represents Fermilab in the Chicago suburbs.  The third sponsor was a veteran congressional science supporter – High Tech Caucus Chair Representative Michael McCaul.

As if the notion of deconstructing the iconic iPad wasn’t enticing enough, we threw in the ultimate catnip for Hill staffers – food.  In this case, we provided the amazingly popular Chik-Fil-A as an alternative to the generally mediocre Hill Catering company boxed lunches.  The result?  An RSVP roster that numbered nearly 80.

And they all sat for nearly two hours, rapt in attention at the unfolding stories that were being told.  Unofficial exit polling recorded comments such as “this was THE BEST briefing I’ve ever been to,” and “I had no idea!” Our point exactly.

During the briefing, Izzard showed the audience a picture of one of the first integrated circuits, a glob of wires and adhesive, and noted that it led to the modern microchip, which powers today’s IPad. For effect, he also waved around an old transistor, another precursor to the modern microchip.

Phillips talked about how research on atoms contributed to the development of the atomic clock and, subsequently, GPS.

“Atoms make the best tickers,” he said, explaining how slowing atoms down using lasers to induce extremely cold temperatures – less than a millionth of a degree from absolute zero – could vastly increase the accuracy of atomic clocks which could, in turn be used to hone the accuracy of a GPS system to locate submarines and to help soldiers find their way in a trackless desert.

Using lasers to COOL instead of heat?  Totally counterintuitive, right?

While talking about the amazing applications of the IPad’s user interfaces, Bederson gave credit to Apple for packaging the technologies into a fantastic product. But he said credit for the invention of the technologies contained therein belonged to scientists who received federal funds for their research. Folks like Steve Jobs stand, Bederson said, “on the shoulders of giants.”

Von Ahn kept the briefing running smoothly and pointed out some of the neat features of the iPad, including its ability to list nearby restaurants based on a simple voice command.

Congressman Hultgren, who offered opening remarks, actually sat through nearly the whole briefing, making him late to his next event.  For the uninitiated, this is generally unheard of in Congress.  If you get a member for 5 minutes, you are considered lucky.  Afterward, Congressman Hultgren indicated his desire to help us get our message out to other members of Congress.

The key, however, is to harp on new members who don’t know that much about the connection between Federally funded early-stage scientific research and its connection to products that have transformed our lives.

Even with this compelling briefing, we face an uphill climb.

[1] The Task Force is an alliance of America’s most innovative companies, leading research universities, and largest scientific societies, including APS.  The mission is to support scientific research in the physical sciences and engineering by working with the Administration and Congress to support the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Defense Department, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Policy news and viewpoints for the physics community. The analysis and opinions are those of the APS Office of Public Affairs and do not necessarily represent the entire Society.