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Where the Charles meets the Potomac: Inside MIT's Washington Office

Bill Bonvillian talks with a group of MIT students.
Bill Bonvillian talks with a group of MIT students.
Photo: MIT Washington Office

As director of MIT’s Washington Office, William Bonvillian spends more time in the halls of federal buildings than in the Infinite Corridor. And if you’re wondering why MIT has an office in the nation’s capital, you’re not alone: Bonvillian says that’s the number-one question he receives.

SPECTRVM called him to find out the answer. His work, it turns out, has as much to do with what’s happening in Cambridge as in DC. Bringing the two together, Bonvillian explains, is shaping the course of U.S. innovation.

Q: Why does MIT need a Washington office?

A: MIT has had an office in Washington since shortly after Chuck Vest became president in 1990. MIT has always thought of itself as having an obligation to play a role in national science and technology policymaking in Washington, and it’s done so in depth since the eve of World War II. It’s part of what makes MIT a unique institution in higher education. A series of leaders coming out of MIT have taken on important policymaking roles — Vannevar Bush is probably the most famous, and recently there’s Ernest Moniz, the first director of MIT’s Energy Initiative (MITEI), who is now the U.S. Secretary of Energy, with many important MIT figures in between. MIT’s presidents and leadership think the Institution itself also has an obligation to get involved.

Therefore, my office’s first job is to follow federal legislation that affects funding or changes within the R&D system or in higher education. MIT doesn’t advocate in Washington for particular grants or awards, but it does care about the health of the overall system. That also translates into a lot of work with the federal R&D agencies. We look at the directions they are moving in, and encourage MIT thought leaders to contribute their perspectives.

Q: Can you give any examples of how you’ve connected agencies and MIT thought leaders?

A: A lot of this has to do with supporting the technology “policy initiatives” MIT has embarked on. MIT has brought together faculty from a range of disciplines and schools, as well as outside advisors, on these projects. The job of our office has been to help get them face to face with policymakers. Typically, there will be a major public presentation of a report at a forum in Washington, such as the National Academies, and then a couple of days’ worth of follow-on meetings with senior agency and administration officials, as well as members of Congress and their staff.

The first big initiative project our office worked on after coming to MIT in 2006 was the Energy Initiative. That has grown into a major MIT research portfolio, with funding from both industry and government, but it began as a series of technology policy reports, starting with nuclear power and then coal. That led to other studies: on the future of natural gas, on the smart grid; there will be another in coming months on solar power. There’s been a major national refocus in the last five or six years on energy R&D — a significant part of which, I think, followed from the MIT reports. MIT researchers and graduates have been very enthusiastic, for example, about working with a new agency called ARPA-E, a kind of DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] in the energy space.

A second major effort has been in the area of convergence, where the life and physical sciences and engineering sciences come together. That’s a research model MIT has spent a lot of time working on: Tyler Jacks has led the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research organized on that model; Robert Langer’s remarkable research exemplifies it. MIT did a major white paper about this new research model in 2011 that was presented in Washington at the AAAS. The model has now been internalized at the National Science Foundation and DARPA; DARPA has announced a new biological technologies office that adopts the convergence approach. And the National Institutes of Health are picking up on it as well, particularly through implementation of the White House’s Brain Initiative.

Advanced manufacturing is another initiative area at MIT. An MIT faculty group cutting across schools and disciplines put together a report that became the two-volume Production and the Innovation Economy study, published by MIT Press. This helped lead to a major White House initiative for which two MIT presidents, L. Rafael Reif and Susan Hockfield before him, have served as co-chairs. MIT’s study played an important role in the bipartisan revival of interest in US manufacturing as a critical economic sector — and, importantly, as an area where R&D and innovation can play a significant role. It was that focus on innovation, as opposed to macro trade or tax policy, that MIT really helped pioneer.

Q: Since you are based in Washington, what’s your strategy for keeping up with the research happening in Cambridge?

A: Our office packages stories about MIT research advances into a monthly online newsletter, “The Endless Frontier,” that we circulate to about 3,000 policymakers in Washington. Putting that together helps us track what’s going on in MIT research. I get up to MIT about twice a month, and I always try to check in with faculty. Three or four times a year we have faculty task force meetings organized by MIT’s vice president for research, Maria Zuber (and Claude Canizares before her). We brainstorm with them about what the R&D agencies are working on and what idea contributions MIT could make.

Q: Is MIT unique in having an office like yours?

A: I’m guessing about 25 major research universities have offices in Washington, and state universities and private universities certainly have staff working on government issues back on their campuses as well. We communicate a lot with the Massachusetts Congressional delegation, and we rely on other universities to make the arguments for research and higher education with their own congressional delegates. But, frankly, no other university has picked up on the policy initiative model that I’ve described in quite the same way that MIT has. MIT’s effectiveness at bringing these big science- and technology-based policy concepts to Washington has led to greater understanding of the contribution that universities can make on critical questions.

Q: What developments in the policy sphere worry you most?

A: The major policy concern that MIT faces is the sequestration law, which will cut and cause stagnation in federal research funding for the next decade. The cuts were not as deep as planned for FY14, and we’ll see what happens in FY15, but then we’re right back in sequestration cuts in R&D for 2016 through 2023.

The U.S. has organized its economy in significant part around technological innovation. When you cut back on a major input into that system, it’s going to have an effect over time on the country’s economic well-being. In my view, it’s a very serious problem, and President Reif has written and spoken extensively about the “innovation deficit” implications. All research universities share that concern, as does industry that relies on university research. But we have not yet been able to alter this in Congress.

On Capitol Hill, there’s limited understanding of how the R&D and innovation space works. It takes a long time to move from research findings to implemented technology — but the political system is not patient. Within the agencies, there’s a better understanding of the system because they are part of it, but when they’re facing cutbacks, they tend to fund less out-of-the-box thinking. I’m concerned that not only are we going to have less science funding, but also it will be more cautious.

Q: Does your office work with MIT students?

A: One of the deep problems within science is the feeling it’s on autopilot, that it doesn’t have to participate in the give-and-take of the political environment. The MIT presidents I’ve worked for have encouraged students to understand the political world and participate in it.

I teach a course on campus each January, during Independent Activities Period, that the students call “Boot Camp.” It’s an intensive, weeklong version of a full course on science and technology policy that I teach at Georgetown University. I usually have 35-40 MIT students, grad students primarily, who know their careers as scientists will in many ways be determined by R&D decisions in Washington. Interestingly, the students have been so enthusiastic about this territory that there is now also a major student organization called the Science Policy Initiative that organizes speakers and events on science and tech policy and visits Congress and federal agencies to learn about science advocacy.

Q: What is your favorite part of teaching Boot Camp?

A: We do a series of case studies on agency areas: health science, for example, or energy or manufacturing. The students get very taken with figuring out the nitty-gritty operations of the innovation systems that rule those territories. How do the institutions within them interact? What are the gaps in those systems, the weaknesses, the strengths? We touch on more abstract concepts, too, such as growth economics, but it’s when we take these deep dives into fields of innovation that students really get interested. Suddenly we’re talking about the fields in which they’re working, and it becomes very real for them.

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