Michael Holland and Kei Koizumi
More than 200 scientists, mathematicians and engineers from around the United States arrived in Washington, D.C. at a time of economic uncertainty: President Barack Obama had made a series of strong statements in support of science, but the economic climate was grim and the White House had yet to release its proposed budget for research and development. The scientists and engineers were there to visit members of Congress and to urge their support for science, but it was hard to know exactly what to say.
In search of guidance, they attended a AAAS briefing on the outlook for R&D in the fiscal year 2010 budget and the pressures facing Congress. The orientation was part of the 14th annual Science-Engineering-Technology Congressional Visits Day, organized and sponsored by 35 science societies and advocacy groups. The event usually occurs after the presidential administration releases a budget request, but this year the budget request had not been released as of 29 April when the group visited Congress.
Instead of responding to a proposed budget, participants needed to consider the presidential administration's science and technology priorities, said Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Congress. For instance, President Obama has emphasized education, innovation and the economy—all concepts the scientists could use to frame their discussions with congressional staffers. "They should build on the positive vision and encourage members of Congress to build on that vision," said Carney, who organizes the AAAS briefing each year.
The briefing began with an overview of the research and development budget from Kei Koizumi, assistant director for federal R&D at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The president plans to double the budget for basic research during fiscal years 2006-2016, up to just less than $20 billion in 2016, Koizumi said. The R&D funds come from discretionary spending, which got a boost this year from the Recovery Act passed in February. "But the vision is to try to ratchet down spending after the economy recovers," he said. Accordingly, the 2010 proposed budget will have slightly less money for R&D.
Koizumi told the scientists that they could be in for a long haul. "You're coming in at the beginning of what could be a very long process," he said. And, with so much proposed government spending in R&D due to the stimulus package, "it's a tough time to ask for more government spending in programs," Koizumi said.
Other panelists at the briefing shared some dos and don'ts in communicating with congressional staff. Michael Holland, a program examiner in the Energy Branch of the Office of Management and Budget, encouraged the scientists to act as technical experts to policy-makers. Holland, a chemist by training, told the participants to think about what they're going to say in advance, to strip it of jargon without dumbing it down.
"Be prepared to talk to a wide variety of levels and specificities and be able to do this on the fly," Holland said. He stressed how scientists should build a rapport with policy—makers, saying he routinely calls scientists for advice.
Panelist Dan Byers, a former AAAS Congressional Science & Engineering fellow, offered a "gloomy" long-term view on science from his role on the staff of the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee. In the past, R&D garnered about 11.5% of the discretionary spending, "a historically incredibly stable" percentage of the $1.3 trillion federal budget for all discretionary expenses, Byers said. But now, the aging population has increased mandatory spending, including Social Security and Medicare, and threatens to squeeze out discretionary funds. R&D could be sustained by trimming mandatory expenses, known as entitlement reform. "Going forward in the next five-10 years, the scientific community has to seriously consider becoming an advocate for entitlement reform," Byers said.
Panelist Eric Werwa also gave the scientists insights on challenges faced by congressional staffers. As a legislative director for Representative Michael Honda (D-California), Werwa listens to advocacy groups' pitches on how to dole out funding to science agencies. "Make clear your priorities," he said. "If we can only do one or two things, which are the ones that are the most critical?" Werwa, also a former AAAS Congressional Science & Engineering fellow, told participants that stressing economic benefits of science programs will resonate well with congressional staff.
The orientation concluded with advice from one of the event's organizers, Deborah Rudolph, manager of government relations at IEEE-USA. She told participants to be respectful, positive and brief, and she too emphasized building relationships with policy-makers. "Don't let it be a one-shot deal," she said.
After the briefing, participants went to Capital Hill for a ceremony awarding the George E. Brown Jr. Science-Engineering-Technology Leadership Award to U.S. Representative David Obey (D-Wisconsin). Rudolph said that Obey, chairman of the Committee on Appropriations, received the award "in recognition of his strong leadership for science and technology appropriations across federal agencies." The award was in part a "thank you" to Obey and demonstrated the group's "commitment to continue advancing a science and technology agenda in America," Rudolph said.