Each spring, IEEE-USA joins with other science technology and math organizations for the annual visit to Congress to advocate for federally- funded scientific research programs. Timing of these visits coincides with consideration of the President’s budget proposals by congressional committees.
Senate and House Appropriations Committees provide authority for the federal agencies to incur obligations and make payments out of the Treasury for specified purposes. So timing our visits is crucial, as Senators and Representatives consider budget priorities for the coming year (FY 2013.)
The learning curve: be informed , be concise, follow up
On 24 April, the IEEE-USA staff in Washington, D.C., welcomed about 35 IEEE members from Maine, Virginia, New Hampshire, Maryland, Texas, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Massachusetts and Illinois. The staff provided overview presentations and background papers that prepared us with the needed tools to discuss IEEE-USA’s priority legislative issues, on behalf of all U.S. engineers, with legislators and staff on the Hill. The state-specific handouts were most useful, providing each state’s ranking in science and technology employment, elementary and secondary education, academic R&D, high-tech business formation, etc.
Our IEEE-USA staff professionals also stressed the importance of getting to know our legislators and their local staff in the home districts. Maintaining contact when we return home for further follow up can build a relationship that is mutually beneficial. Volunteering to assist with expert advice on technical subjects; inviting legislators to IEEE district meetings, or company visits, are useful ways to gain legislators interest in the issues and concerns of U.S. engineers.
After the formal presentations, we met in teams--where we discussed specific issues that were relevant to the home district of the different congressional representatives. I teamed with members from Delaware, Maine and Texas. Focus on the state rankings provided an “ice breaker” for developing a dialog to use with the congressional staff.
We also focused on a few specific technologies that we would discuss with legislators. Basic National Science Foundation research provided the seed for Internet development. Funding for the Naval Research Lab and DARPA in the 50s and 60s was the spark that began development resulting in the commercial expansion of the Global Positioning System. Even many of the Apple iPad functionalities, such as touch screen, sensor suite and the GPS atomic clock resulted from early stage federally funded research through NSF, NASA, NIST, DARPA or ONR. Finally, one member of our group explained how an NSF grant directly helped in pursuing an advanced engineering degree.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science hosted an afternoon session, offering an opportunity for IEEE-USA volunteers and the scientific and engineering community to gather together to hear an overview of the U.S. budget; a comparison with the FY2012 appropriations; and the context for framing the discussions with congressional staffers the following day. Kei Koizumi from the Office of Science and Technology Policy explained the President’s budget proposal in detail.
Congressional staff members from the majority and minority subcommittees of the House Science Committee explored the issues, and answered questions. The message was clear: The present is a time of austerity. Appropriators will be looking to reduce federal agencies’ funding authority--including funding for research in science and technology.
In the evening, we attended a reception in the House Rayburn Building, an awards ceremony, and various exhibits. NSF, NOAA, the Commerce Dept., and other government agencies and the private sector displayed ongoing projects, and the results of federally-funded research programs. Senator Mark Udall (Colorado) and Representative Randy Hultgren (Illinois), who contributed to advancing the interests of science and technology in their respective committees and with their colleagues, received awards.
By the end of the day, IEEE-USA participants were well informed on the Budget, and had the necessary tools to explain to our legislators why science and technology funding issues should be high on their priority lists.
The rubber meets the road
On April 25, our day began with breakfast at the House Rayburn Building, and a pep talk by congressional representatives Frank Wolf (Virginia) and Ron Kind (Wisconsin). Their message was that there are dozens of groups that visit their offices each day, in particular at this time of year. So it’s important to leave a brief, concise message--and offer technical services at any time in the future for any issues that may arise. They also stressed it was important follow up at the local level often-- to become familiar with the congressional representatives in our states. They said that opportunities for staff and legislators to visit engineering facilities or academic institutions in their districts are always welcome, and offer ways to better understand the importance of science and technology issues to constituents. Both Wolf and Kind noted that job creation, employment and retention is always front and center.
As we crossed the Hill from office to office, it became clear that every group in the country seemed to be visiting this particular day! Nonetheless, we were prepared. Each meeting with legislative staffers of Texas, Delaware and Maine took less than 15 minutes. At each office, the IEEE-USA member who was a constituent in that State led the discussions. We made our points, offered technical service, suggested that contact be made through the IEEE-USA professional staff in Washington, D.C., and we offered to follow up at the local level.
I found the Delaware staff assistants for Senators Carper and Coons, and Representative Carney, very supportive and knowledgeable regarding the science and technology agenda. Each staffer assured us that our message would be passed along. There was, however, a note of pragmatism in the comments we received, about what could be expected given the prevailing austerity situation this year.
In summary, the professional staff at IEEE-USA deserves a “well done” in preparing us for the meetings. In my opinion, based on several years participating in CVD, IEEE-USA volunteers were the best informed and the best prepared to leave a concise, lasting message with the legislators. And that made participating in this event very satisfying and worthwhile.
John Gilsenan is a telecommunication consultant who retired from federal service with the FCC, and the Defense and State Departments.