Several from MIT lobby Congress for science funding


President Charles M. Vest and Dean M. DeLongchamp, a graduate student in chemical engineering, represented MIT at Science Day in Washington, D.C., a briskly paced lobbying effort to increase government funding for basic science.

Science Day on July 11 and 12 was organized by the Science Coalition, an alliance of more than 400 organizations, including 70 public and private universities dedicated to strengthening the federal investment in university-based research. President Vest was a founding president of the coalition when it was established in 1994.

The general goal of Science Day was to allow direct conversations between scientists and congressional staff about current research projects and the importance of funding them.

MIT was also represented by powerful evidence of the results of research and of educational innovation: a lucite trophy containing an embedded "pharmacy on a chip" developed by Robert Langer, the Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering; Michael Cima, professor of materials science and engineering; and John Santini, an NSF graduate fellow and MIT research affilitate.

Also receiving identical "Champions of Science" award trophies were Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-Minn.; Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn.; Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, R-N.Y.; and Rep. Ralph M. Hall, D-Texas.

Testifying to the impact of MIT's Design 2.007 robot engineering contest, high school teams of rocket-builders demonstrated their machines at a breakfast meeting on Capitol Hill.

Newt Gingrich, former US Representative and speaker of the House, sang the first notes of a tune that would echo throughout the next day. "There are 537 elected officials. You can get 537 scientists to make friends with all of them. First-class scientists should leave the lab and talk to officials and to the public," he said. "As a former elected official, I can say, having people visit matters. This is a city drowning in noise. Show up. You can have a huge impact."

Mr. Gingrich had other suggestions consistent with his history of advocacy for increased science funding. But he insisted that scientists themselves be "good citizens" by "translating for the public."

BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS

During Breakfast at Science Day, high school teams in T-shirts or jumpsuits hovered over machines they designed and built through the national FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program.

Dean Kamen, co-founder of FIRST with Woodie Flowers, the Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, was the keynote speaker. Professor Flowers was also a founder of the 2.007 contest 30 years ago.

"We are gathered here in an extremely important cause: to bring together those who do science and technology with those who make it possible and to strengthen the connections between government and those who work in labs," Vest said in introducing Kamen.

Kamen, whom Vest described as a "force of nature," graded the 200-plus Science Day participants "A-plus for the technology you see and D-minus for not explaining it to the public.

"The world is in a race between technical competence and catastrophe. Congress should invest in you the way people invest in sports teams and stadiums," said Kamen.

WALKING THE WALK

DeLongchamp came prepared for Science Day. The third-year graduate student studies polymers in the lab directed by Paula T. Hammond, associate professor of chemical engineering.

The electrochromics that DeLongchamp works with are ultrathin multilayered polymer films that are created by a type of assisted self-assembly, namely, layer-by-layer assembly. They are designed to change color in response to a particular electrical potential.

DeLongchamp's current goal is to investigate how new polymer electrochromics created by layer-by-layer assembly might perform. Applications of electrochromics include dynamic camouflage, solar windows, displays and rear-view mirrors.

As a Department of Defense Fellow, Delongchamp has presented his research in Washington before; "I stopped being nervous a while ago," he said. And he did come prepared, just as Gingrich and Kamen recommended.

He portrayed the intricacies of his research with a calligrapher's swift strokes and also brought a demonstration: a black plastic box the size of a disposable camera with three red buttons on the back, a small battery on the top and a shiny square screen on the front. The click of a button changed the appearance of the screen using electrochromism.

"If a teacher could come in and explain that gizmo, kids would get excited. We need to make science more sexy," said Jane Oates, senior staff member for Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Other staffers who met with the Science Day Boston group inlcuded Lisa Rosenberg, representing Sen. John Kerry, and Brendan Plapp of Rep. Markey's office. Plapp, a Congressional Science Fellow, appeared to enjoy the presentations, though he warned them that "science is just another special interest. Remember, it's all about money -- attention and money. You're competing just like any other lobby." The group spoke with staff members for Reps. John Tierney and Mike Capuano. Each researcher had about 15 minutes to summarize years of effort.

All of the Massachusetts group's congressional meetings were arranged by Kathryn Alsbrooks, administrative assistant in the MIT Washington Office. John C. Crowley, MIT's vice president for federal relations, has twice chaired the Science Day Planning Committee and has served on the Science Coalition Steering Committee since its inception.

MIT students have played key roles in several other lobbying events, including the Coalition for National Science Funding event held on behalf of the NSF; the Coalition for National Security Research event in support of Department of Defense research programs; the Plasma Science Coalition on behalf of Department of Energy Plasma Science (MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center is featured), and with industry representatives in the Science and Engineering Task Force.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 15, 2001.


Topics: National relations and service

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