Public Policy

2013 Congressional Visits Day (SET CVD) Participants Advocate for Federally Funded Sci-Tech Research

By John Gilsenan

IEEE-USA joined with other science, engineering and math organizations on 12-13 March, for the annual two-day visit to House and Senate offices, to advocate for federally funded research for science and engineering programs.  Timing of these visits coincided with various congressional committees’ consideration of the President’s budget proposal.

The Appropriations Committees of the House and Senate provide authority for the federal agencies to incur obligations and make payments out of the Treasury for specified purposes. So, timing of our visit is crucial, as senators and representatives are considering budget priorities for fiscal year 2014.  This year, sequestration complicated the budget activities and priorities.

Orientation

On 12 March, the IEEE-USA staff in Washington, D.C., welcomed about 26 U.S. IEEE members from Maine, Virginia, New Hampshire, Maryland, Texas, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, California, Colorado, Missouri and Illinois.  IEEE-USA staff presentations and background papers provided the tools the volunteers needed to discuss IEEE-USA’s priority legislative issues with legislators and staff on the Hill.

The state-specific handouts, projecting the number of scientific, technical, engineering and math (STEM) jobs that each state would need to fill by 2018, were most useful.   IEEE-USA staff also identified the top five recipients of federal R&D contracts, and the top five contracting agencies for each state. Federal U.S. R&D outlays have decreased by 10 percent in the past 20 years, and continue to decline; while other countries’ research funding has increased, thus jeopardizing U.S. global competitiveness.

IEEE-USA staff stressed the importance of getting to know our legislators and their local staff in our home districts.  They pointed out that maintaining contact when we return home, for further follow-up, can build a relationship that is mutually beneficial.  IEEE-USA staff also explained that volunteering to assist with expert advice on technical subjects, and inviting legislators to IEEE district meetings, or company visits, are useful ways to gain legislators’ interest in issues that are important to U.S IEEE members.

After the formal presentations, we met in teams where we discussed specific issues that were relevant to our congressional representatives’ home districts.  I was teamed with members from Delaware and Illinois.  Two students from Illinois were on our team, who had first-hand knowledge about the adverse impact of reduced R&D funding on graduate students, due to research projects that had been eliminated.  Our team members all agreed to raise the elimination of graduate research projects as an important issue.

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We also focused on a few specific technologies to discuss with legislators. Basic NSF 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 commercial expansion of the Global Positioning System. Even such Apple I-Pad functionalities as touch-screen, sensor suite and the GPS atomic clock resulted from early-stage federally funded NSF, NASA, NIST, DARPA and ONR research through NSF.

And for the closer, we decided that member of our group would explain how U.S. patents very often result from federally funded research.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) hosted an afternoon session, offering IEEE-USA volunteers and the scientific and engineering community an opportunity to gather together for an overview of the U.S. budget, a comparison with the FY 13 appropriations, and the context for framing the discussions with congressional staffers the following day.

Kei Koizumi, from the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy explained the President’s budget proposal in some detail.

Congressional staff members from the minority Senate Science and Space Committee, and the majority Senate Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee answered questions, and provided their perspectives on the committee process, competing interests, the effects of sequestration on science and technology funding.  As we heard last year the message was clear: this is a time of austerity. Sequestration requires across the board budget cuts.  Federally funded research programs, including grants and contracts awarded by federal agencies would not be spared.  The deficit is also front and center with legislators.  Appropriators will likely be looking to reduce federal agencies’ funding authority, including funding for research in science and technology.

Evening activities for participants offered us a reception in the Rayburn House Office Building, an awards ceremony and exhibits. NSF, NOAA, the Commerce Department, and other government agencies, as well as the private sector, displayed ongoing projects and the results of federally funded research programs. Representatives Mike Honda, D-Calif., and Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., who contributed to advancing the interests of science and technology in their respective committees, and with their congressional colleagues, each received awards.

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By the end of the day, IEEE-USA participants were well-informed on the budget, and had the tools needed to explain to our legislators why science and technology funding issues should be high on their priority list.

Congressional Office Visits

On March 13, our day began with breakfast at the Rayburn House Building, and a pep talk by Congressmen Randy Hultgren, R-Ill. His message confirmed the importance and payoff of federal funding for science and technology research. He advised, however, that dozens of advocacy groups visit congressional offices each day, at this time of year, in particular.  He encouraged us to leave a brief, concise message, and then offer our technical services and expertise–at any time in the future, for any issues that may arise.  Hultgren also said to follow up at the local level often–to become known to our congressional representatives.

He pointed out that opportunities for legislators and staff to visit hometown engineering facilities or academic institutions in their districts are always welcome. And that visits to local companies and universities offer legislators ways to better understand the importance of science and technology issues to their constituents.  Hultgren stressed that impacts on job creation and retention are always front and center.

As we crossed the Hill from office to office, it became clear that dozens of groups from across the country were also visiting the Hill this day.  Nonetheless, we came prepared.  Our meetings with the Delaware and Illinois legislative staffers each took about 15 minutes. We began by explaining IEEE-USA, its volunteers and the U.S. IEEE members, and our purpose at each office. The IEEE-USA volunteer who was a constituent in that particular state led the discussions. We made our points, offered our technical services and expertise, suggested that contact be made through the IEEE-USA in the Washington, D.C. office, and offered to follow up at the local level.

Our Illinois grad student’s comments were especially well received, as she described her doctoral project, and the importance of government funding to continue projects like hers.  We explained that the payoff for research carried out by universities is much longer-term than private companies, mostly concerned about return on investment, can afford to carry out.  The legislative staffers confirmed that Senators Durbin, D-Ill., and Kirk, D-Ill, and Representatives Schneider, D-Ill., and Davis, D-Ill., support funding basic research.

Staff assistants for Senators Carper, D-Del., and Coons, D-Del., and Representative Carney, D-Del., assured us that their members strongly support funding those federal agencies that are responsible for the basic research grants and contracts to universities and other entities.  The Illinois and Delaware congressional representatives and their staffers understand that federally funded research supports our economy, makes America competitive, improves our quality of life, and drives innovation.

Each staffer assured us that our message would be passed along to our congressional representatives.  As in the past, however, a note of pragmatism prevailed in the responses and comments we received.  Sequestration meant there would be cuts, across the board, in all accounts, including the research programs of all agencies.  Staffers were not optimistic about what could be expected, given the effect of sequestration, and the austerity that takes precedence this year.

In summary, we found a very supportive reception to our message.  At the same time, the realism of the prevailing situations in the divided Congress left us with a sense that federally funded research will likely face the same budgetary difficulties as many other programs.  We were able to make the case for federally funded research, offered the services of IEEE-USA, and plan to stay in touch locally with our senators and representatives.

IEEE-USA’s professional staffers deserve a “well done” for preparing us for the meetings.  In my opinion, based on several years participating in SET CVD, U.S. IEEE members were the best informed, and the best prepared to leave a concise, lasting message with their legislators.


John Gilsenan is a telecommunication consultant, who is retired from federal service with the FCC, and the U.S. Defense and State Departments.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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