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Science Advocacy-The Michigan Model

The following article is part of an ongoing series that focuses on Sigma Xi chapter activities. It is based on a report by Loran Bieber, who is professor of biochemistry, associate dean of research and consultant to the vice president for research and graduate studies at Michigan State University, and Marion Anderson, director of Employment Research Associates and a consultant on this project. Anderson can be contacted at mbaera@pilot.msu.edu and Bieber at bieber@pilot.msu.edu. Their full report is available via Michigan Science Policy Initiative.

Michigan Sigma Xi Members Talk to Congress

As Congress struggled to balance the federal budget, ominous rumblings of a possible 30 percent cutback in civilian research and development spurred Michigan State University Chapter Sigma Xi members to organize a series of visits with members of their Congressional delegation, during which they stressed the importance of research and science and math education to the nation’s economic well-being.

This statewide effort, which began in 1996, has involved Michigan scientists and engineers from universities, colleges and industry. During 1996-97, Sigma Xi members, in groups of about five, visited 11 of their 16 Congressmen. The meetings have continued, with very positive results. In two instances, Sigma Xi delegations have been asked to serve in an advisory capacity on science and technology policy.

Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, a physicist and vice chairman of the House Science Committee, summed up the general reaction to this initiative when he said, "If we had had groups like yours in every Congressional District, it would have taken me a week to save the National Science Foundation instead of three months." Congressman Dale E. Kildee said, "In my 22 years in Congress, the only visits from scientists I’ve ever had are these two visits from Sigma Xi. You should do this all over the country."

That sentiment was echoed at the 1997 Sigma Xi Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., in two workshops conducted by Michigan State biochemist Loran Bieber, Hope College chemist Graham Peaslee, House Science Committee staff member Skip Stiles and economist Marion Anderson. Sigma Xi was urged to begin pilot projects in other parts of the country based on the Michigan model.

Local Influence

Organizers say it has been important to meet Congressmen on their home turf. Visiting them in their district offices has underscored the fact that scientists are constituents as well as experts in S&T. Once they realized Sigma Xi members were not there as lobbyists but as dedicated scientists committed to the future of research and the economic health of the nation, the Congressmen became open and attentive.

Preparation has been a key. Each visit has been preceded by an hour-long conference call, with a carefully prepared agenda, so participating researchers can decide who is going to take which major points during the discussion. Marion Anderson, who acted as organizer for these visits, also sent briefing material to the participants as well as background information on the members of Congress. Visits to the home office offer another advantage. Congressmen tend to have more time at home than they do on Capitol Hill. The meetings have ranged from 50 minutes to two hours.

"We began by handing out a chart," economist Anderson said. "It shows the Japanese investment in research, a line that goes up dramatically for R&D--and this is with a stagnant economy in Japan--and the U.S. trend, going down."

She said it has been extremely important to have both industrial and academic researchers in the Sigma Xi delegations. "One Congressman, a strong proponent of free enterprise, argued, ‘Industry can do it all. Government doesn’t have to do anything. There’s no need for government input.’ A chemist from then looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘Congressman, we are cutting our R&D budget by $200 million. We will die without university R&D.’"

Key Discussion Points

Key points discussed with members of Congress have included:

* The critical importance of research and development to the economic health of our nation.

    The relationship between basic, developmental and applied research and the importance of university-based research to industry.

    The sustained growth in Japanese research and development, now 12 percent per year.

    The importance of science education at every level.

Some of the exciting results of this work include:

    Getting Congressman Ehlers, who is heading a Congressional effort to write federal science policy for the 21st century, to be the opening speaker at the 1997 Sigma Xi Forum in Washington, D.C., on Trends in Industrial Innovation.

    * One Congressman’s dramatic change from saying last year, "If the research is needed, corporations will do it," to saying this year, "There’s going to be a budget surplus. Some of it should go to research and development."

Why Sigma Xi?

Michigan members say Sigma Xi is an ideal organization to become involved in science policy discussions with members of Congress, and there are several reasons why. First of all, Sigma Xi is organized by chapters, while most other scientific organizations are not, and this means there are Sigma Xi chapters in or near the vast majority of Congressional districts. Secondly, Sigma Xi is both academic and industrial, with experience and outreach in both the public and private sectors. And, thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Sigma Xi represents every branch of science and engineering.

As Skip Stiles, of the House Science Committee staff, said, "Washington lobbyists would give their eyeteeth for an organization like Sigma Xi. You have the perfect set-up. You have a lateral organization and a vertical information flow."

The experience in Michigan, a medium sized state with 16 members of Congress, ranging from very progressive to extremely conservative, is something that’s worth repeating. "The scientists have been elated that they can talk with the members of Congress and that the members listen," Anderson said. "I’m sure this is something that would work throughout the United States."


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