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Science Policy Initiative calls on Congress to support investments in R&D

Students traveled to Washington to urge continued funding.
From left, Richard Agbeyibor, Patrick Wen, Daniel Rothenberg, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Dillon Gardner, Eleanor Bors and Michael Chang.
From left, Richard Agbeyibor, Patrick Wen, Daniel Rothenberg, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Dillon Gardner, Eleanor Bors and Michael Chang.

Undergraduate and graduate student members of the MIT Science Policy Initiative (SPI) traveled to Washington, D.C., recently to speak with members of Congress about the need for continued federal funding of science and technology R&D in fiscal year 2013 and the need to avoid the automatic cuts by sequestration from the Budget Control Act of 2011.

As the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, the “super committee” created in the Budget Control Act, failed to reach an agreement on the federal budget by Thanksgiving last November, an automatic $1.2 trillion cut of discretionary spending, referred to as sequestration, will become law on Jan. 1, 2013, causing an 8 to 12 percent cut in federal funds for science and technology R&D.

Nineteen students from SPI joined more than 200 scientists, engineers and business leaders who made visits to Capitol Hill as part of the 17th “Congressional Visits Day,” an annual event sponsored by the Science-Engineering-Technology Work Group on April 24-25. The Science-Engineering-Technology Work Group is an information network comprising professional, scientific and engineering societies, institutions of higher learning and trade associations. The sponsors represent more than 1 million researchers and professions in science and engineering.

While visiting congressional offices, SPI members discussed the importance of the nation’s investment in science, engineering and technology to promoting long-term innovation and prosperity. Most importantly, they provided a constituent’s perspective on the local and national impact of these programs and their significance to students and researchers working on federally funded research projects.

More than 60 percent of all industrial innovation and growth in the United States since World War II can be attributed to scientific and technological innovation and publically funded R&D has been the vital foundation of this progress. Achievements from federally funded science, engineering and technology include global environmental monitoring, lasers, liquid crystal displays, and the Internet.

Over the past 40 years, the United States investment in science and technology R&D has steadily decreased. This has prompted fears that the United States is losing its competitive advantage. As journalist George Will put it, “America has been consuming its seed corn: From 1970 to 1995, federal support for research in the physical sciences, as a fraction of gross domestic product, declined 54 percent; in engineering 51 percent.” SPI’s meeting with members of Congress is an effort to affect this trend.

One of the participants and organizers of CVD, Patrick Wen, a fifth-year graduate student in chemistry remarked that “Not only was Congressional Visits Day a great chance to advocate for federal science funding, but I learned how broad economic and fiscal concerns effect science funding and, just as importantly, I learned how to engage non-scientists about the importance of scientific research, including my own research.”

Highlights of the two-day event included a series of briefings and talks by members of Congress and executive branch officials including Kei Koizumi, director for federal R&D in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Matthew Hourihan, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) R&D Budget and Policy Program. Also present was a panel of congressional staffers: Dan Byers, staff director, Majority Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, House Science Space and Technology Committee; Dahlia Sokolov, staff director, Minority Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, House Science, Space and Technology Committee; Nate Engle, Office of Senate Majority Leader Reid.

SPI’s Sam Brinton shared with the audience at AAAS the accomplishments of Stand With Science, a movement started last fall by a group of MIT graduate students seeking to reach Congress, which has gone viral and now includes more than 10,000 graduate students across the nation.

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