Physics on Capitol Hill - 2002

Louise Parsons, Former FGSA Secretary

In January 2002, staff members from the APS Office of Public Affairs (OPA) spent a day lobbying on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., on issues related to physical science. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to participate, along with several other members of the physics community including the Chair-Elect of the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs, Karsten Heeger. We met with staff members from the offices of several senators and representatives and discussed the role that physics and physicists play in our society. I found it to be a most rewarding educational experience, one in which I would encourage others to participate.

According to their mission statement, the APS OPA (located in downtown Washington, D.C.) was established "to facilitate communication between physicists, the public, and government on scientific issues of concern to APS members and to the nation as a whole." The organization conducts technical studies on issues of national importance, coordinates lobbying efforts and provides Congressional and Media Fellowships. As members of the APS, our interests are represented before Congress by the OPA; the work they do helps ensure our legislators are aware of the importance of physics to the well-being of this nation.

Several weeks before arriving in Washington D.C., we arranged to meet with our Congressional representatives. We received support from the OPA staff, who organized a briefing session on the morning of our meetings. The issues on our agenda were discussed during this briefing and any questions we had about the process were answered. The OPA also produces many informational resources which we used to assist us; they are extremely well written and researched and are invaluable when making solid arguments in support of the physical sciences.

There were three items on our agenda for each meeting. The first was a request to increase funding for both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Department of Energy (DOE) for the fiscal year 2003. Recently the National Institutes of Health received a large funding increase, a move that has left the portfolio somewhat unbalanced; indeed, advances in medicine and life sciences often rely heavily on advances in the physical sciences (e.g. ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging and laser surgery).

The second item on the agenda was a request for support of the Homeland Security Act, which would provide interest forgiveness on loans drawn by students studying areas considered to be critical to national security (such as physics). Notably, several members of Congress have argued that investing in science education is essential for ensuring that the United States continues to be a world leader in technology and, hence, essential for national security.

The third and final request was for the creation of a position of " Under-Secretary for Science and Energy" within the DOE. The DOE is one of the largest federal sponsors of research in the physical sciences; however, science programs supported by the DOE often receive little visibility, and the DOE science budget has been drastically reduced. If created, the new position may raise the profile of science within the DOE.

We had been warned that, in the current economic climate, this would be a difficult year to get Congress to agree on extra spending. However, almost everyone we met with was enthusiastic and supportive about the role that science plays in our society, and recently a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives that aims to increase NSF funding by 50% over the next 5 years. This is an encouraging sign as it indicates that, despite the tight budget, Congress still recognizes the importance of basic research and development.

Through the lobbying process, I became more informed about policy issues relating to physical science and I learned a great deal about science policy decision-making. I enthusiastically recommend this experience to all other interested graduate students. If you would like to lobby with the APS OPA or play other active roles in science policy, you may wish to visit the APS OPA website. From this website, you can join their mailing list, find out about internship opportunities, write a letter to your members of Congress and much more. If you are going to be in the D.C. area and are willing to spend some of your time lobbying, the people at the OPA will be able to help you set up meetings and give you all the necessary resources.