Congressional Visits Day urges research investment

WASHINGTON, DC—In early March, volunteers from SPIE (Bellingham, WA) and the Optical Society of America (OSA; Washington, DC) traveled to Washington to urge our Congress members to boost federal funding for research and education.

WASHINGTON, DC—In early March, volunteers from SPIE (Bellingham, WA) and the Optical Society of America (OSA; Washington, DC) traveled to Washington to urge our Congress members to boost federal funding for research and education. In the words of SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs, “There is an urgent need to make certain that we have the research activity and the talent to address energy issues and other problems.”

The SPIE and OSA volunteers, as well as individuals from other societies, were among the more than 250 who participated in the annual Congressional Visits Day (CVD) sponsored by the Science-Engineering-Technology (SET) Working Group. The working group is a coalition of organizations and industry representatives—including the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics, IEEE, and the Materials Research Society, as well as SPIE and OSA—concerned about federal investment in scientific research.

“The positive outcome of this year’s CVD event owes a great deal to the very well-prepared materials (clear, fact-based, great graphics) by SPIE staff,” said Jim McNally, president and CEO of TruTouch Technologies (Albuquerque, NM), a returning CVD volunteer, and a member of the SPIE Engineering Science and Technology Committee. “This made the Congressional office visits straightforward and productive, and made our talking points very strong.”

SPIE said that volunteers offer a first-hand view to our Congress members of aging federal labs, grants that fund projects only partially through the life of the project and are not renewed, and other funding shortfalls that combine to reduce the country’s ability to be a world leader in innovation. In addition, SPIE said that SET visitors also urged Congressional support of math and science education programs, pointing to recent studies that show a serious decline in proficiency in both areas among students in America’s schools.

“CVD was my first venture into the politics of Capitol Hill; the week before the trip, I read up on my congressional representatives to know what committees they were on so the discussion could be tuned to areas where they have strongest influence,” said Rich Youngworth, optical engineer at Light Capture (Riviera Beach, FL) and SPIE Membership Committee Chair. “I think most people in Congress really try to represent their constituents well, but the problems facing the country now are significant—the Congress must deal with the public relations requirements and short-term mindset our populace seems to have. Small-business types like me can make a difference if we get out from behind our computer screens and calculations to point out the immediate and long-term security and economic benefits of good science policy.”

“Our priorities during these visits were to ask our representatives to support the President’s FY09 budget request in accordance with the America COMPETES Act of 2007 and to request that the FY08 Supplemental Request restore funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that was cut in 2007 in order to avoid drastic and potentially irreversible cuts in those programs,” said Terence Haran, research engineer in the Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory at Georgia Tech Research Institute and branch head for Intelligent Sensors and Imaging Systems within the lab. Haran is a member of the SPIE Education Committee.

“CVD was a very rewarding experience since it helped us better understand the legislative process and how best to work within it while also providing our representatives with the feedback from real scientists and engineers that they need to advocate for support of this area. This was my first opportunity to participate in Congressional Visit Days with SPIE and it was quite encouraging to see that there is strong bi-partisan support for science and technology within Congress,” said Haran.

However, some feedback from CVD was not quite as positive. “This was my second time participating with SPIE in CVD,” said Barbara Darnell, project manager at Bodkin Design (Newton, MA) and chair of the SPIE Education Committee. “I visited the offices of my Senators John Kerry and Edward Kennedy and Congressman Barney Frank. All of my Representatives have strong voting records in support of Science, Education and Technology issues; unfortunately, the message that I received from all three offices was that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are sapping all available funds and more,” said Darnell. “All three members of Congress were feverishly trying to include basic science funding in the pending Supplemental Spending bill that will authorize payments for the Iraq war so that, at a minimum, the ‘lights can be left on’ for some of our most important science programs. Once the lights are turned off in some instances, turning them back on is not an option.”

SPIE president Kevin Harding said research needs the support of both government and industry to provide solutions for our changing future. “As a society, SPIE plans to aggressively work to strengthen those connections with the hope of driving the science and technology strategies of the future.”

“The U.S. cannot afford cuts in basic research and development funding,” said Elizabeth Rogan, OSA executive director. “Investments in R&D give us the quality of life we enjoy today, and it is only through long-term, steady federal investment in America’s research enterprise that we will continue to be successful as a nation.”

—Gail Overton

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