Prism Magazine - February 2003
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Taking The Ivory Tower to the Capitol Dome

- By Michael Isaacson    

If researchers and academics want Congress to make informed decisions about science and technology, then they need to start speaking up.

Most people wouldn't trust their elected leaders to perform surgery on them, tune-up their cars, or even give them a haircut—not because they're not intelligent, but because they simply don't have the expertise to make good decisions in these matters. Yet, senators and congressional representatives constantly make decisions about science and technology that affect research and education at colleges and universities—even though only a handful of them have any sort of scientific background. In spite of the huge impact these decisions have on their livelihoods, few academics in engineering have any contact with their congressional delegates.

Legislators have so many decisions to make and can often only spend a few minutes on each one. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chair of the House Science Committee, has noted that members of Congress would like to hear from university researchers on issues relating to higher education, technology, and science so they could be more informed when making decisions that have scientific or technological underpinnings. And congressional representatives are eager to listen to their constituents, particularly those who actually know something about an issue.

The best way to insure that this country invests appropriately in university research and education is to make your voice heard. Tell your local representative what it is you do. Often, there is a gross misconception about what professors actually do for a living, and even less knowledge about what goes on in university research labs and how that research benefits the country. The recent goals of doubling the NIH and NSF budgets did not pop up automatically in the minds of Congress. It was the result of concerted educational efforts by a handful of prominent researchers and academics.

How can you help? First, when you receive a federal grant for your research, write a letter to your local representative and senator thanking them for their support of funding for that agency—even if they opposed it—and tell them in everyday terms what your research is and why it is important. Second, invite your congressional representative to visit your campus and look at your department's research first hand. Third, the next time you are in Washington, D.C., take an extra morning or afternoon to visit the offices of your legislators. The government affairs office of your campus will be only too happy to arrange these visits. Many representatives are delighted to talk to real-life university researchers, not only to hear the exciting stuff that is going on but to solicit opinions on other issues as well. It is just as important to do this when there is a particular bill pending that might affect university research, as it is when there is not anything of specific interest pending. You may not always get to meet your congressional representative because of their busy schedules, but you will get to see someone from the staff. And staffers are usually the ones who draft the language that goes into the bills. Developing relationships with the staff often results in your opinion being sought when information is needed on other research issues.

The point to keep in mind is that the better informed congressional representatives are on issues related to science and technology, the better decision they will be able to make.

In today's complex world, when science and technology dominate our lives, it is time for academics to get out of their ivory towers and tell the people who maintain those alabaster buildings what it is they do. It is in your best interest to get involved.


Michael Isaacson is the Narinder Kapany Professor of electrical engineering and the associate dean of research in the school of engineering at the University of California–Santa Cruz. He can be reached at

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