By Russell T. Harrison
America’s 113th Congress was sworn in on January 3rd. There are seventy-nine freshmen members of the new legislature, twelve Senators and 67 Representatives. Along with the new blood, we have new committee chairs, new priorities and new opportunities. And two years to take advantage of them.
IEEE-USA will go into the new legislative session with a full agenda of its own. As approved by the IEEE-USA Board of Directors, the 2013 agenda is as expansive as the IEEE membership, covering everything from energy policy to patents to the internet.
But just because IEEE-USA thinks an issue is important, doesn’t mean Congress will share our enthusiasm. Many of the issues IEEE-USA members care about won’t make it onto Congress’ agenda over the next two years. IEEE-USA’s legislative agenda will focus on issues that both IEEE members and Congress care about. But even within this subset of issues, we still have a long to-do list for the 113th Congress
IEEE-USA and Congress both agree that steps need to be taken to improve the innovativeness of the American economy. Unfortunately, we do not necessarily agree on how to do that.
Our innovation agenda focuses on two broad areas: education and research.
There is little debate that the United States needs to do a better job teaching science and math in primary and secondary schools. Better teacher training, facilities and lesson plans are all common solutions, and are valid.
But IEEE-USA thinks school systems should go further by fundamentally re-thinking their curricula. Why, for example, are 21st century schools still teaching the same four basic science classes that they were teaching at the beginning of the 20th century: earth science, biology, chemistry and physics? Adding engineering and technology to the curricula would strengthen the entire science and math program by exposing students to new, cutting edge ideas. The federal government can, and should, play a role in helping local schools make this change–by highlighting the benefits of teaching engineering, providing lesson plans and other instructional aids, and helping disadvantaged schools make the transition.
At the university level, the federal government needs to, at the very least, not abandon its commitment to supporting engineering education. Engineering is among the most expensive department in any university, yet it is also among the most important for American society. The federal government needs to play a role in promoting research at the university level, while also supporting engineering departments and students.
After college, the federal government continues to play a crucial role underwriting basic research at national labs and in the private sector. This support can be direct federal spending, or can be preferential tax status for research activities. Either way, these incentives must be maintained, even in today’s difficult budget environment.
After a disappointingly inactive 112th Congress, IEEE-USA is hopeful that the 113th Congress can be more effective at reaching useful compromises on energy legislation. Legislation promoting alternative energy (including nuclear energy), electric and hybrid vehicles, and strengthening the electrical grid could all be debated this year. IEEE-USA is especially interested in congressional efforts to promote the Smart Grid, and build more high-voltage power lines.
Of course, if Congress does a good job creating a truly smart grid, we may not need as many new power lines.
After the STEM Jobs Act passed the House of Representatives late last year, we are well positioned to achieve significant high-skill immigration reform in 2013. There is bipartisan and bi-cameral support for making it easier for graduates of American universities, but haggling over the details derailed last year’s legislation.
Whether as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, or as stand-alone legislation, IEEE-USA is optimistic that a deal can be reached in this Congress to provide more green cards to graduates of our universities.
This area was one of the few where the past Congress was conspicuously productive, successfully passing the America Invents Act, which radically transformed U.S. patent law”although not necessarily in a good way. IEEE-USA will spend much of 2013 working with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to implement this law in a way that protects smaller inventors.
We will also carry the focus here to Congress. Many legislators are unaware of the impact patent law has on the innovation and entrepreneurs. That’s not too surprising, since so few legislators have backgrounds in IP law or technology. IEEE members will have to work hard to correct this gap in Congress’ knowledge, by explaining the role IP plays in their career, especially to the freshmen Members.
This issue started getting hot towards the end of 2012, when the United Nations proposed taking control of the global Internet away from the United States and regulating the networks itself. Many Americans, and Congress, thought this idea was especially bad. IEEE members can provide a real service to society by helping their legislators understand how the Internet works, and how it is run. Armed with a better working knowledge of the Internet, Congress and the White House will be in better positions to understand and respond to the proposals coming out of the United Nations.
A significant cybersecurity bill almost passed Congress towards the end of 2012. They will try again in this 113th Congress. Legislators have devoted a considerable amount of time and effort in the past couple of years into understanding cybersecurity, helped in many cases by IEEE members. This preparation ought to pay off with reasonable legislation to help the government, private businesses and academia work together to improve the security of our networks.
Cybersecurity represents one of the few policy areas where the two Parties have worked relatively well together. While individual legislators may disagree on policy specifics, most legislators seem to both understand that there is a problem, and legitimately want to address it. Of course, that combination didn’t produce good legislation last year, but IEEE-USA is hopeful that we can get a better result soon.
For that to happen, IEEE members will again have to explain the Internet, and the nature of security threats in a wired world, to their legislators. This field is well outside of most elected officials’ experience. We will need to help them understand the issues, if we want them to write and pass good laws.
That lesson applies to all areas of policy. Most Members of Congress are very smart and hardworking. But we can’t expect every legislator to be an expert in every field-especially when it comes to issues that require a technical or scientific background. One person simply cannot be an expert in cybersecurity, welfare law, tax law, the environment, education policy, and the dozens of other issues areas Congress grapples with each year.
Fortunately, in addition to being smart and dedicated, most legislators are also good listeners. Most will appreciate hearing from a constituent who is an expert in the fields they are not-like an IEEE member.
IEEE-USA encourages all IEEE members to reach out to their legislators. Whether you invite them to a section meeting, stop by their local office or just send them an e-mail, take advantage of our Democracy by letting your Member of Congress know what you know–about the things they need to know about!
Russell T. Harrison is IEEE-USA’s senior legislative representative for grassroots affairs.