In My Opinion: Have You Hugged a Politician Lately?

BY Jim Isaak Posted: 1 Jun 2013

On 13 March, scientists, engineers and technologists invaded the halls of Congress with a desire to change the world. Ok, with a desire to encourage federal investment in basic R&D and STEM education. Why should you care? It affects your job, and your long-term quality of life.

If affects your job because technology jobs (you know--the ones that pay money and do not involve serving fast food) require on-going, high-tech industry and emerging startups. Both of these require innovation and new ideas to remain competitive, or even solvent.  But basic R&D is not an investment that the quarterly reporting private sector will make. The universities and research firms that do undertake such projects are typically federally funded– and also funded with a few other sources. as well. Reduced funding means fewer folks in the United States pursuing basic R&D. Some of those folks move to countries that are funding work in their areas, or drop out of these activities altogether.

Does basic R&D pay? Yes, but in the long-term, and often not in the ways you might expect. ARPA funded an effort to connect a few universities and government labs on a network in 1969. We now call that the Internet (which is where the “Inter” in Internet came from, after we stopped calling it ARPAnet.) The EU funded a massive super collider at CERN, and while you may consider the Higgs Boson to be a “finding,” the highest impact result in my estimation is the World Wide Web. U.S. super-computing R&D yielded “browsers”, and NSF funding provided the algorithmic foundation for Google.  Commercial products from GPS to Tang have federal research funding as part of their heritage. When we diminish that pipeline, the impact plays out over many years.  There will be many benefits, startups, jobs, as well as high impact results from the federally funded Human Genome Project --but at this point, China is sequencing more Genomes than the United States; and U.S. NIH funding is being cut by hundreds of grants per year.

In 2012, New Hampshire, received more than $184 million dollars from federal R&D contracts. This amount will decline in the current economic situation, along with the potential innovations, startups, and jobs that can emerge from these investments. Leading recipients of this money include BAE on the Defense side, Dartmouth (healthcare, cybersecurity, etc.), and DEKA Integrated Solutions Corp. (health care, etc.)

Does a visit to congressional offices help? Yes.  As constituents, we target our congressional representatives--that gets their attention.  We have a public value message: innovation and quality jobs – which are a much easier sell than the private interest lobbying they hear regularly. We provide examples they can use in their ongoing discussions, and that sets the basis for action. It is important to keep the connections over time, so we can keep the stories current, and not let the issues disappear in the continuous cacophony that echoes through Congress.

No, you don’t really have to hug a politician. But they (or more realistically, their staff) like to encounter constituents that encourage them to “do the right thing.”  And hopefully, we can thank them for their support when they do deliver (or at least try.) This 113th Congress will reauthorize the America Competes Act, with backing for STEM education; NASA funding (the third largest contracting agency for NH R&D); and Energy Research, as opportunities for R&D and STEM commitments.

Thanks to support from the IEEE New Hampshire Section, I was able to participate in this year’s visit.  I met with staff in Rep. Carol Shea-Porter’s, D-N.H., office; Senator Shaheen’s, D-N.H., office; and Senator Ayott’s, R-N.H, office. The folks in Rep. Shea-Porter’s office and Senator Shaheen’s office were on-board, aware of the issues and the value.  Unfortunately, the staff person from Senator Ayott’s office had limited time for discussion, so we had less time to communicate the concepts, and get a sense for where the Senator stands. Senator Ayott is a strong advocate for national defense, and given the leading role of BAE in New Hampshire, we can hope she will support at least some of the essential investments. Congress is under significant pressure to deal with deficit issues, making it even more critical to help identify priorities.

If you are interested in participating in the public policy dialog, please take a look at IEEE-USA’s Public Policy web pages.  You may also communicate with me -- Jim Isaak.

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Jim Isaak is past president of the IEEE Computer Society; past IEEE division director; on the Board of the IEEE Society for the Social Implications of Technology; past New Hampshire Computer Society chapter chair; and candidate for IEEE VP-Elect for Technical Activities.  Isaak has 30 years in industry, six in academia, and is now “no longer paid for the work he does.”

 

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