IEEE-USA’s Science, Engineering and Technology Congressional Visits Day (SET CVD) is an annual two-day event that brings scientists, engineers, mathematicians, researchers, educators, and technology executives to Washington — to raise visibility and support for science, engineering, and technology. Uniquely multi-sector and multi-disciplinary, the SET CVD is coordinated by a coalition of professional societies, companies and educational institutions. It is open to all who support science and technology, especially federal support for STEM research. The program consists of a series of briefings and meetings, culminating with a full day of visits with your Congressional delegates.
A recurring topic of discussion for our meetings is the sustainability and independence of basic exploratory research, with this year’s focus on the National Science Foundation (NSF). We asked our representatives on the Hill to hold the line on the federal budget for NSF, as well as to continue allowing NSF to maintain total control over what research should get funded.
While I was studying Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, I had the opportunity to work on a research project with the Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory (BIL). My work involved exploring designs of Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) systems in an attempt to create a low-cost, but effective, system for diagnosing ear infections. Ear infections are commonly diagnosed by a simple observation inside the ear with an otoscope, allowing the infection to grow considerably before the patient is sent to a specialist. Having an OCT system in a primary care office allows primary care physicians a proper chance to catch an ear infection before it grows into something more serious.
This project is but one example of work I have been able to do, as a result of NSF funds. Some other really progressive NSF funded work at the BIL include developing novel optical techniques to stimulate neurons in optogenetics, developing an in-vivo fiber bundle to image cells in the brain, and developing handheld imaging systems using Optical Coherence Tomography and Low Coherence Interferometry, based on a compact smartphone platform. Stop by BIL’s website at biophotonics.illinois.edu for more information regarding their work.
SET CVD raises awareness of the long-term importance of science, engineering and technology to the nation through face-to-face meetings with Members of Congress, congressional staff, key administration officials, and other decisionmakers. This year, the core messages volunteers delivered were:
- Balanced federal investment in Science, Engineering and Technology is fundamental to the future of our Nation’s prosperity
- Science, Engineering and Technology partnerships between government, universities, and industries mean progress, economic growth and jobs for our Nation
- Federal investments in basic research must be maintained, even in a tight fiscal environment.
Today, the United States maintains a lead on research spending per capita. Well-performing economies in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are a close second and third — a far cry from the gap of the 1970s and 1980s. I believe that to maintain our leading position within the global scientific community, into the 21st century and beyond, and to maintain economic and military hegemony, we must make it easier for researchers and institutes to access grants and funds. A new topic of discussion during our meetings this year was new legislation being created by IEEE-USA to standardize overhead work across agencies — to effectively save researchers time, so that they can do more research work. Studies show that researchers spend roughly 40 percent of their time making applications, reporting results, and complying with regulatory work. Although not all 40 percent of that work is a result of government agency overhead, this kind of legislation is an effective way to increase research work across the country — without the need to put more money into their programs.
Professor Stephen A. Boppart, M.D., Ph.D. runs the Biophotonics Imaging Lab, and I would like to thank him for helping provide me with more insight to the specific work being done there, on very short notice. As a result of a drop in funding rates, Boppart spends more time applying for grants — to ensure that the group can continue operations and be productive. He spends roughly 40 percent of his time writing grant proposals; 20 percent reviewing papers and results; and another 20 percent on reporting and compliance overhead. He spends 10 percent of his time teaching, leaves only about 10 percent of his time for thinking about and doing research work. Boppart would love to spend more time doing actual research work, and I believe that the legislation IEEE-USA is working on would help him ” as well as other researchers around the country, tremendously.
Overall, I loved participating in the Congressional Visits Day with IEEE-USA again this year. In my four years of attendance at this event, I have always had fun, as well as delivered important messages to our decisionmakers. I would heartily encourage IEEE members across the United States to participate in future SET CVD events. I look forward to a day when our IEEE members can represent all 50 states at this event on the Hill.
Anthony Shvets is the program director and co-founder of RoboThink, a STEM education company that exists to teach kids around the country engineering and problem-solving skills, through robotics and coding. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.