Getting Scientists and Congress to Mingle

Peter Harsha

One of the most effective "tools" of the science advocacy community, in making the case for federal support of science, is…well, scientists. Occasions in which researchers are able to sit down with Members of Congress and discuss their own work do more to advance the cause of science than five meetings with staff like me.

There are a couple of reasons for this.

Scientists tend to be pretty smart and well-spoken. They've thought a lot about their work and usually understand how to explain it to lay people (despite the usual stereotypes about scientists.) More importantly, they're usually pretty good at conveying why their work matters, and can do it in a way that makes the passion they feel for it palpable.

And that's no small thing. When the time comes to make decisions about priorities, a Member's personal connection to a researcher, an understanding of what research goes on in his or her district, and an understanding of the long-term benefits of that research all can help swing the balance in favor of science.

That's why I'm especially pleased when members of the Computing Research Association (CRA) community take time to mingle with policymakers and talk about what they do. One occasion CRA uses to do this on a regular basis is the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) Capitol Hill Science Exhibition and Reception, held this year on June 7th.

CNSF is a science fair of sorts, staged on Capitol Hill for Members of Congress and their staff as a way to highlight the important and interesting work enabled by federal investment in basic research at the National Science Foundation. This year, CRA was well-represented at the Exhibition by Lucy Sanders and Katie Ertz (pictured, above) from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).

The NCWIT display occupied a unique niche at this year's exhibition. While the great majority of booths highlighted particular research efforts sponsored by NSF, NCWIT's was one of the few (if the only) to focus on NSF's broader role in developing the science and engineering workforce. NCWIT brought attention to the continued need to increase participation of underrepresented populations in the workforce.

The event was quite well-attended and Lucy and Katie found a number of willing listeners among Members of Congress -- including Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), key congressional staffers, and a surprising number of agency personnel. There were times when it was quite difficult to move around the room, the bodies were packed in so tightly. CNSF counted more than 300 attendees this year, including six Members of Congress, despite a very busy day in the House: a very encouraging, symbolic display of support for science.

It's not too late to participate in CNSF's upcoming Fall Congressional Visits Day, scheduled for September 13, 2006 (with an orientation session on September 12th). This is a great opportunity to make sure computing researchers are represented when the research community speaks on the Hill about the importance of the federal role in supporting research. CRA's Melissa Norr has all the details.

Thanks to Lucy and Katie for their willingness to travel to DC and participate and for making the case so effectively. If you're a CRA-member institution and are interested in showing of your NSF-sponsored research at a future Hill event, drop me a line at harsha@cra.org!



Peter Harsha heads CRA's Government Affairs Committee.