Scientists Visit Capitol Hill, Urge Continued Support for Federal R&D Investment

More than 300 scientists and engineers traveled to Capitol Hill to raise visibility and support for federal investment in research and development as part of the 2010 Science, Engineering, and Technology Congressional Visits Day.

A day before their appointments with members of Congress and their staffs, the participants—including scientists, engineers, educators, students, and technology executives from around the country—came to AAAS headquarters for an afternoon orientation where top science policy officials outlined the federal government’s science and technology priorities.

Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Congress, said the goal of the afternoon briefing and visits to Capitol Hill is to raise awareness—for both scientists and lawmakers—about the role that strong federal investments for science and engineering play in the nation’s prosperity.

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Joanne Carney

“By explaining their research and its potential applications for society, scientists help lawmakers understand the importance of supporting a strong federal science budget as a driver for the economy and job creation,” said Carney. “But the meetings also help scientists gain an appreciation for the legislative process and how support for their research is crafted on Capitol Hill.”

The afternoon briefing also included a presentation by Tiffany Lohwater, public engagement manager at AAAS, on communicating scientific research to lawmakers, the media, and the public. Lohwater said that among the more critical elements for communicating complex research is “tailoring your message to the people in front of you.”

“Effective communication is a conversation where the person you’re talking to can connect to your ideas and can appreciate why you feel they are important,” said Lohwater. During the presentation, Lohwater told the scientists that when they spoke to lawmakers the next day, they should be aware of the short amount of time they would have to present their message and to “make it useful and relevant.”

Now in its 15th year, Congressional Visits Day, held 28-29 April, was organized by the Science-Engineering-Technology Working Group—an informal network comprising 33 professional, scientific, and engineering societies, higher education associations, institutions of higher learning, and trade associations. Their goal is to ensure the future vitality of science, engineering, and mathematics in the United States by maintaining strong support among lawmakers and committees on Capitol Hill.

Kei Koizumi, assistant director for federal research and development in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, outlined U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget request to Congress, which included a 5.6% increase in basic and applied research, with strong support for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

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Kei Koizumi

“The president recognizes the contribution that science plays in addressing our national goals, including prosperity, security, health, and overall well-being,” said Koizumi.

He called Obama’s science budget request “strong,” especially considering an overall flat budget and the desire of the president and Congress to reduce the deficit.

Patrick Clemins, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, said that federal investment in research and development is spread across 24 agencies, with only the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services (including the National Institutes of Health) receiving more than 10% of the total science budget.

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Patrick Clemins

He calculates total federal support for basic and applied research in the president’s proposed budget at $62 billion, or a 3.2% increase over FY 2010. He added that his analysis for basic and applied research funding differs’ from OSTP in part due to the inclusion of the Defense Health Program Research Development Test & Evaluation, which would receive a $780 million dollar drop in funding.

Clemins said that the president’s budget reorganization for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has sparked concerns that the United States might lose its leadership status in space exploration. In the new proposed budget, NASA would receive a 17.8% increase in R&D funding as part of a significant reorganization that includes the retirement of the Space Shuttle and cancellation of the Constellation program.

With the freed up resources, NASA plans to invest in commercial spaceflight vehicles ($6 billion over five years), the International Space Station ($2 billion increase over five years), and heavy lift and propulsion ($559 million in FY 2011).

Dixon Butler, a majority staff assistant on the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, said that the restructuring of the NASA space flight program is “painful,” especially for those who hoped the Constellation program would return Americans to the moon.

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Dixon Butler

He quickly added that NASA’s new research priorities reflect the agency’s roots in advancing space technology. “We’ve been to the moon,” said Butler. “Now, the president and others are asking, ‘What’s next?’”

Butler also praised the Obama proposed budget for strongly supporting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.

“Improving science education is the best way to build a workforce to use the products of federal investment in research and development and create a body politic comfortable with science,” said Butler.

Michael Holland, senior advisor to the undersecretary for science at the Department of Energy, said that the Department would use this year’s 5.4% budget increase for science and energy to “invest in clean, innovative, and secure energy sources.”

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Michael Holland

Specifically, they hope to increase the use of clean renewable energies such as wind, solar, and geothermal; improve energy efficiency in homes, businesses, and transportation; and provide the technical and financial support to restart the U.S. nuclear power program.

“Energy problems are ripe for discovery,” said Holland. “We need to do a better job seizing opportunities for commercialization by translating discoveries in the laboratory into products for the consumer.”

Thomas Baer, executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center at Stanford University, labeled the development of lasers as “a great example of federal agencies making a decision to invest in basic research which resulted in developing technology with impact far beyond the dreams and expectations of the decision makers.”

Baer said that 50 years after American physicist Theodore H. Maiman made the first functioning laser, one-third to one-half of the nation’s gross domestic product depends on lasers. Almost all financial transactions in the United States are done electronically, with the information encoded on a laser and transmitted across fiber optics.

“In addition to enabling much good science, every day lasers make crucial and valuable contributions to our economy and way of life,” said Baer.

Laser-intensive industries include: telecommunications (landlines, mobile phones, internet, 911 emergency centers all rely on lasers), high-speed super computing, integrated circuit manufacturing, eye surgery, and the music and movie industry (through CDs and DVDs). They are also used in heavy industry, as “a laser is a cutting tool that never dulls.”

One of the most exciting applications for lasers is in gene sequencing. Baer said that a researcher could analyze 2000 base pairs a day with technology present in 1975. At that rate, it would take 4000 years for a single instrument to map the human genome. Baer predicts a leap forward in laser-based gene sequencing technology in the coming decade, which will enable geneticists to analyze a complete human genome (3 billion base pairs) in a single hour.