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Ongoing Contact with Politicians a Key to Promoting Federal Funding for R&D
More than 250 scientists, engineers, researchers, educators, and technology executives attended an afternoon briefing at AAAS in preparation for meetings with congressional decision makers. The AAAS briefing and congressional meetings were part of the annual Congressional Visits Day, a grassroots activity organized by a collection of science, engineering and technology organizations in an effort to promote federal support of research and development.
The event is designed to encourage scientists and other research professionals to develop ongoing contact with politicians. "The overall goal is to talk about research and development, and how they are important for competitiveness and innovation," said Joanne Padrón Carney, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Congress and an organizer of the activities.
The visits began in the mid-1990s "when we were faced with efforts to reduce the deficit, which meant research and development funding would decline," said Carney. Individual science and technology organizations had been arranging their own visits to Congress, but the value of coordinated outreach on the Hill became evident. "A unified voice was needed," Carney said.
To answer this need, the Science-Engineering-Technology Working Group formed in 1994 and has been organizing annual congressional visits days ever since. The group is a coalition of S&T groups—including universities, scientific societies, and companies—and estimates that its annual visits reach about two-thirds of all members of Congress. AAAS has planned and hosted most of the briefings that precede the congressional visits organized by the working group, Carney said, as a way to provide participants with perspectives on the budget and legislative process.
At podium: Joanne Padrón Carney. Seated, from left: Kei Koizumi, James Turner, Michael Holland and Dahlia Sokolov
On 4 March, the day before this year's visits to Capitol Hill, the participants attended a briefing at AAAS during which they learned about the budget trade-offs facing Congress and heard advice from Hill staffers on how to talk to politicians.
At the briefing, Kei Koizumi, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, described some of the ways the $3.1 trillion proposed budget for FY 2009 would affect the science and technology community. Koizumi's preliminary analysis has found that physical sciences funding would increase while biomedical funding will remain flat. [See Koizumi's full analysis and a related AAAS news story.]
He emphasized that the science proponents would be competing with other groups, such as those related to law enforcement and education, that have experienced even more severe budget cuts in recent years. "A lot of agencies are out there trying to get their budget back," he said. "This is different from the science and technology community, which is trying to sustain."
The 2009 budget outlook is mixed. Some science and technology agencies, including the three agencies included in President George W. Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative—the Office of Science at the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)—would receive increases.
The proposed NIST budget, for example, would increase 6.1% to $545 million, according to Koizumi's analysis. James Turner, acting director at NIST, said at the briefing that he looks at the 2009 budget as a "once-in-a-generation opportunity." After a disappointing 2008 budget, Turner said, the proposed increases for 2009 will help NIST invest in new programs. "We want to be in a position where we've built the infrastructure," he said.
Michael Holland, a program examiner at the White House's Office of Management and Budget, described himself as "a target" for people requesting federal funds. He offered advice on how participants could best communicate with science policy officers when asking for support for particular research programs. He told participants to know how the programs they're promoting benefit society and the politician's district. Holland, an analytical chemist by training, also advised participants to be prepared to answer questions about how the program performs and how well it is managed.
"Your goal is to tell a compelling story," Holland said. Politicians are looking for the most value in the programs they fund, he said, and they want to know what they're going to get for the taxpayers' money.
Holland emphasized the need to develop ongoing contact with staffers. "Don't bury us with data slides," he said. "Focus on a few high-level concepts, on building relationships, and as serving as a resource." He recalled how he keeps business cards of technical experts who visit him so that he has someone to call when relevant questions arise. "Be the person who the staffer calls with questions," Holland added.
Briefing panelist Dahlia Sokolov, a staff member for the research subcommittee at the House Science & Technology Committee, also emphasized relationship-building with staffers and politicians. "Carry out a message with a steady drumbeat," Sokolov said. She encouraged participants to build relationships with DC-based office staff and to meet with Congressional representatives while they're in their home districts, which is when representatives have more time to meet with their constituents.
One participant asked how much correspondence is appropriate and at what point it becomes annoying. Some panelists encouraged emails as opposed to phone calls. Kathryn Clay, a staff member for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, also urged participants to recognize that time is short. Fifteen minutes "is a respectable chunk of time" to have with a congressional staffer, she said. Participants should know the position of the office on the issues being discussed and—when appropriate—thank the politician for voting on an issue or attending a hearing. Clay, who has a doctorate in physics, recommended leaving a briefing paper so staffers will remember the issues discussed at the meeting.
First-time participant Jim Bielefeld, an electrical engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said that maintaining a strong science and technology workforce and not moving jobs overseas were among his reasons for participating in this year's visits. "We need to encourage young people to be interested in science and technology and to contribute to the national good," Bielefeld said.
In its 13th year, the 2008 Congressional Visits Day attracted 42 science, engineering and technology organizations, including universities, professional societies and companies. Some organizations sent one or two representatives, and others sent upwards of 20.
"We're the only group that does this so diversely with this emphasis," said Deborah Rudolph, who helps Science-Engineering-Technology Working Group to organize Congressional Visits Day. "We're keeping the attention on these programs. And we've been consistently doing this year after year."
12 March 2008