Joan and Irwin Jacobs know the importance of a helping hand.
Both were the first in their families to attend college, at Cornell University. There, she was able to complete her bachelor of science from the College of Human Ecology, tuition-free; he made a hard pivot from hospitality into engineering—a shift that ultimately resulted in the creation of the software and mobile technology company Qualcomm.
But the couple credits the great personal and financial success that followed to assists from many others. Those boosts—from mentors, through encouragement by colleagues, from strangers willing to take a chance, from public servants seeking an informed opinion—have guided their legacy of philanthropy to education and science, research and development, and the arts.
They continue that tradition with a new challenge grant to AAAS. The couple will match up to $2 million in contributions to fund the creation of an endowment to support two new AAAS Congressional Science & Engineering Fellows positions on Capitol Hill. It is the largest challenge gift in the history of the organization.
“Relatively few members of Congress have been trained in the sciences,” Dr. Jacobs said. “It’s important for them to have a resource available who can provide advice and help interpret different issues in science. That can make a significant difference in the legislation that is passed—laws which make a significant difference in all our lives.”
While other Science & Technology Policy Fellows (STPF) are embedded at federal agencies and government offices around D.C., Congressional Science & Engineering Fellows, a subset of the STPF program, spend their year on Capitol Hill. Serving in an advisory capacity for representatives and senators who request them for their staffs, these fellows bring their academic expertise directly to the halls of power where the laws of the land are shaped daily.
The fellows who serve in Congress are funded by a coalition of scientific societies including AAAS. With only about 30 fellows available each year to Congress, they are in very high demand. Fellows who serve in the executive branch are usually supported by their host agency.
“Fellows are an investment,” said AAAS CEO Dr. Sudip Parikh, who himself served as an aide in Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter’s office earlier in his career. “They will spend their careers as scientists and engineers – but scientists and engineers who are able to talk to Congress and the executive branch.”
In Qualcomm’s early years, as well as with his previous company Linkabit, Dr. Jacobs performed a similar role, serving as a bridge between technical information and communicating it in a way that laid bare its benefits, impacts and possibilities. He spent enormous amounts of time conferencing with decisionmakers in U.S. and international communications agencies, painstakingly explaining the workings behind wireless communications. In 1985, when Qualcomm was founded, the tech was so new that few people outside of academia or the military knew anything at all about how the chips and software worked. But with a deep understanding of digital communications – he wrote one of the first textbooks on the subject in 1965 while a professor at MIT – he was able to answer lawmakers’ questions about technical and opaque technical concepts.
“All these government interactions turned out to be important,” Dr. Jacobs said. Those interactions were myriad: in emerging markets in Hong Kong, South Korea and even the United States, Jacobs and his colleagues explained how Qualcomm’s new CDMA technology for mobile phones could fit seamlessly in with existing satellite communications and an older cell phone protocol, TDMA. “Engineers and scientists need to interact with government people to help them understand the issues well.”
“The Jacobs’ gift is a clear signal of their trust in science – particularly at its intersection with policy and American governance,” said Dr. John P. Holdren, Science Advisor to President Obama and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2009 until 2017. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with many STPF fellows in the past. Continuing to bring scientists and engineers to Washington is more important than ever.” Holdren is a professor of environmental science and policy with appointments in the Kennedy School of Government, the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Harvard.
Nobel laureate Dr. Steven Chu, chair of the AAAS board and the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of physics at Stanford University, said the Science & Technology Fellows were indispensable during his tenure as Secretary of Energy under President Barack Obama.
“Their broad science and engineering backgrounds as well as their one-year tenure made them unique assets – they embodied both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ perspectives,” Chu said. “As one of AAAS’ most important programs, we are so grateful to the Jacobses for helping to establish legislative branch fellowships in perpetuity with their challenge match.”
The Jacobs, who celebrated their 66th anniversary this year, believe a deeper understanding of science and technology by policymakers is as crucial as ever. And having ready access to scientific advisors for elected officials takes on a new personal dimension for the Jacobs family now: their granddaughter, Sara Jacobs, will be headed to Congress in the new year as the representative from California’s 53rd District.
“Science needs to make its case to the public,” Dr. Jacobs said. “There’s a large percentage of the public that really doesn’t accept science, or believe scientists, or understand it quite well enough. Scientists have learned that it’s important to communicate better with the public – and part of that can be through public officials.”
Mrs. Jacobs noted that the heavy reliance upon digital communications forced upon the world in the wake of covid-19 lockdowns shows just how much work remains to be done to improve access to resources: healthcare in particular, but also to efficient communications. This has direct impacts on access to other resources: education, medicine, work opportunities, to name a few.
“This pandemic has shown that we lack a lot of infrastructure,” she said.
Technology continues to evolve at a blistering pace. Dr. Jacobs mused that though the real-world impact of new technology always lags, the pandemic may well shorten that delay. From robotics to deep learning, to telehealth, to cultural activities and education, both Jacobses agree: policymakers need every resource at their disposal to keep up with the ongoing revolution, let alone get ahead of the curve.
Sometimes, that means that both scientists and policymakers need to take a leap of faith – to talk to one another and be open to new ideas – as so many people did for the Jacobses to such great impact.
“We’re going slowly, and these transitions do take time – but we’re going into yet another world, and we have to be open to it,” Dr. Jacobs said. “People in government need to be open to what’s happening, and need to be able to look ahead. With guidance from people like these congressional fellows, they’re better able to look for policies that help us all transition into that future, and allow us all to live a better life.”