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 firstname.lastname@example.org.