Rep. Chaka Fattah on Scientists Working With Congress: ‘You Have to Play in This Business Every Day’

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, urged scientists to “be active at each and every point” of the policy process. “You have to play in this business every day,” Fattah said in a 3 May breakfast talk at the 38th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

He noted scientists’ concern with a recent suggestion by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas)—the new chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology—that every National Science Foundation (NSF) grant include a statement of how the research “would directly benefit the American people.”

Fattah told Forum attendees there likely will be bipartisan opposition to any effort to revise the existing guidelines for NSF’s peer review process. “I don’t think we should be fixing something that’s not broken,” he said, noting that NSF’s peer review process is “the envy of the scientific world.”

But while Fattah predicted that Smith’s current proposal will not engender a great deal of support, he reminded scientists that Smith also was a principal sponsor of a patent reform bill that won bipartisan support in the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011.

“So when Lamar Smith is doing good work on patent reform, then you need to be applauding that,” Fattah said.

Lawmakers will be more inclined to listen to scientists’ complaints, he said, if they have been paying attention to all of the work that members of Congress are doing on their behalf. And if scientists are concerned about passivity by the public regarding important issues such as climate change, Fattah said, “Then, as scientists, you cannot exhibit the same passivity when it comes to public policy.”

Fattah also said it is important for scientists to take a proactive approach in explaining to Congress and the public how basic research that may seem arcane can, “in the blink of an eye,” lead to practical applications such as advanced brain scanners or global positioning systems that are integrated into mobile phones used by millions.

“There are so many things that impact us every single day that have been the direct result of federally invested research,” Fattah said.

 

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Rep. Fattah speaking to a AAAS audience at breakfast. [Credit: AAAS/Robert Beets]

Fattah, who is in his 10th congressional term, has traveled widely to major U.S. research facilities and has become one of the strongest voices in Congress for basic science, most notably neuroscience. “Congressman Fattah is unquestionably one of the best friends of science ever,” said Alan I. Leshner, the CEO of AAAS. “He really gets it.” Leshner, who introduced Fattah at the Forum, noted that he was the initiator of what ultimately turned into the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) that was announced by President Barack Obama at the White House on 2 April.Rep. Fattah speaking to a AAAS audience at breakfast. [Credit: AAAS/Robert Beets]“Neuroscience is a superior among equals among my priorities,” Fattah said. Research advances during the past decade may have brought neuroscience to a tipping point, he said, where researchers finally start getting the upper hand on Alzheimer’s and other devastating brain disorders. The new brain mapping initiative, aimed at better understanding how the 100 billion neurons in the brain connect and interact, is expected to provide both fundamental knowledge about the workings of the healthy brain and clues to the eventual treatment of many brain diseases and disorders.

 

Fattah said the United States must continue to invest in science and technology in all areas if it wants to remain competitive. He noted that the nation may soon lose the distinction of having the world’s largest supercomputer and already has seen the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, become the world’s most powerful device for high-energy physics.

“If we don’t continue to make investments in these critical areas, we are going to fall behind,” Fattah said. “It may put us in a position where we’re trying to explain to our grandchildren how it is that, on our watch, we allowed our nation to be put in a deficit position” with regard to science and technology. He noted that Singapore, with a population of about 5 million—less than the population of the Philadelphia metropolitan area—now invests about $7 billion a year in science. The United States must not slacken its commitment to science, he said, as China, India and other countries ramp up their spending on research and development.

“No matter how expensive it may seem,” Fattah said, “I’m convinced that ignorance costs us more as a nation.”

VIDEO CAPTION: Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) at the AAAS Forum on S&T Policy, comparing U.S. investment in S&T with that of other nations. [Credit: AAAS/Carla Schaffer]Scientists may raise a ruckus with Congress when research budgets shrink or they fear political interference with peer review, but they also must engage lawmakers when times are good and decisions go their way, a leading backer of science in the House said recently.