Science Advocacy-The Michigan Model
Sigma Xi could be the engine, it could be the group to move
R and D forward in our nation.
- Congressman Dale Kildee to a Michigan Sigma Xi delegation. December 2, 1997
Michigan Sigma Xi Talks With Congress
by Loran Bieber and Marion Anderson
During the past year, both academic and industrial members
of Michigan Sigma Xi have held a series of meetings with Michigan Members of Congress in
their home offices. The purpose of these interviews was to inform the Members that long
term research and development funded by the federal government is vital to the economic
health of our nation. Although it is premature to say that there have been concrete
alterations in votes or policies, all of the changes in Members' attitudes which we have
seen are positive. We believe that if this work is done in a number of states, it could
generate policy changes yielding major benefits to our nation and to the scientific
Background: R and D Under Attack
By the summer of 1996, scientists all over the country were
increasingly worried as the intense emphasis on balancing the federal budget would mean
that civilian research and development spending would be cut by about 30% by the year 2002. This steady downward slide after years of flat funding or very modest increases spelled
disaster for thousands of hard working creative scientists. It also presaged a long term
disaster for the economic health of the United States.
It was with this ominous prospect in mind that the chairman of the Sigma
Xi chapter at Michigan State University, Dr. James Trosko, tried to set up a debate
between the incumbent Congressman, Dick Chrysler and the challenger, Democrat Debbie
Stabenow. Stabenow agreed. Chrysler's staff kept putting Trosko off, and finally refused
to have any debate at all on science and education.
During this time, Marion Anderson, an economist with considerable
experience on Capitol Hill and with issues of economic development, contacted Dr. Trosko
to say that she was extremely worried about what the proposed R and D cuts would do to the
economic health of our nation, and that she would be able to help Sigma Xi set up meetings
with Michigan Members of Congress. Dr. Trosko responded enthusiastically, and called a
meeting of the MSU executive committee to discuss this proposal. They passed it
unanimously and agreed that the chapter would take care of phone, printing and other
incidental expenses related to the work of setting up meetings in the home offices of the
Michigan Congressional delegation.
It was always conceived as a statewide effort. The intent was that
scientists who were constituents of the Members would do the interviews. From the
beginning, Michigan Sigma Xi tried to have the delegations composed of scientists from
both academia and industry. We also tried to have some continuity as we felt it critical
to be able to learn from our experiences as well as to see if there were changes over time
in the Congresspeople's attitudes. Therefore, Dr. Loran Bieber of the MSU Biochemistry
department went on most of the interviews and Marion Anderson, Director of Employment
Research Associates, went on all of them.
Early Interviews - The Learning Curve
In 1996, the first thing we were told by the Congressmen -
Democrat and Republican alike - was, "The budget is going to go down. Everyone is
going to take a hit. You guys are going to have to take a hit too." Then, more
insidiously, "Give us your expert advice. Where (in science) should we cut?"
During the first two interviews, one or two members of the delegation
said they would help and give advice. But we soon saw that this was a divide and conquer
strategy. It would allow the Congressman to stand up on the floor of the House of
Representatives waving a sheet of paper announcing "Prominent University of Michigan
biochemist says physicists get too much funding."
So we quickly wrote a memo for future Sigma Xi delegations stating that
it is not up to the scientific community to set national priorities. That is what Congress
is elected to do. It is up to the scientific community to give advice on how scientific
and technical goals can be accomplished.
As Sigma Xi is a broadly based research society, it was immediately
clear that everyone wanted to discuss the importance of long term R and D to the future of
the nation. However, it took several months to recognize that as the members of the
typical five person delegation did not know each other, a conference call was needed
before we met with the Members.
These conference calls proved to be invaluable. They were essential for
setting the tone of the interviews and defusing potential problems. They allowed everyone
a chance to ask questions, and it gave us the opportunity to brief the scientists on what
a Congressional interview was really like. With few exceptions, the scientists had
erroneous views. They thought the interviews would be like mini Congressional hearings
with the delegation seated in a neat row facing the Member and that they would proceed to
give carefully prepared statements followed by orderly questions from the Congressperson.
This is not what happens. Members of Congress usually have dominant
personalities, and within a few minutes, frequently before we were even finished with the
introductions, he or she began telling about their interests. Sometimes they were
defensive, "I'm voting to fund NIH, so what's the problem?"
We found that it was necessary for everyone on the delegation to know
from the conference call which of the key points he or she was responsible for. Once the
scientists understood that the meeting is like a conversation, they felt comfortable about
getting in the point for which they were responsible whenever they got a chance.
Prior to the conference call, which usually lasted about fifty minutes,
Marion Anderson would send the participants a packet including the conference call agenda,
a chart showing U.S. and Japanese R and D spending and projections, the Key Points, and a
short biography of the Congressperson.
We learned that it does not work to have the briefing immediately
prior to the interview. People are anxious and excited and immediately start discussing
their grants, class sizes or business with each other.
We found it valuable to have a debriefing afterwards. Often we were able
to remain in the conference room and talk about the interview, how it went, how we can
improve them, and what we wanted to do next. Other times, we'd go for coffee or lunch.
There is a considerable body of knowledge on the optimum size of
groups for different functions. For this type of interview, five seemed to be an excellent
size. The group was not so large that it formed its own internal dynamic with people
talking to each other, and it was large enough to have both academic and industrial
scientists as well as Loran Bieber and Marion Anderson to provide continuity.
A key point of the interviews was discussing the importance of long term
basic research to the future economic health of the United States. Having scientists from
General Motors R and D, Ford R and D and Dow Chemical as well as CEOs from small biotech
and engineering firms was invaluable. If just the academic scientists had talked
about the importance of basic research, it would be all too easy for the Member to
discount their views on the supposition that it was just in their self interest in keeping
the grants coming. But when a scientist from GM R and D or an experienced engineer from
Delphi Automotive says that their companies have terminated their advanced research and
they are now depending upon the universities to do it, this has a profound effect upon the
This discussion would lead naturally into talking about the need for
major improvements in science and math education and the necessity for training more
American scientists so we are not so dependent upon scientists from other nations who are
increasingly returning to their homelands.
Several of the scientists on these visits have spent time in the Far
East, especially Japan and Korea, and were eloquent about the extent of resources going
into research in these nations. Some also pointed out that we were giving advanced
training to students from all over the world who used to try and stay here, but are
increasingly returning to their own countries to work for our economic competitors.
As Members of Congress see themselves as protectors and defenders of the
U.S., the trade and jobs arguments are taken seriously. Their pride in the U.S. and their
anxiety about our enormous negative balance of trade leads them to accept the concept that
if R and D goes down, if we continue, "To eat our seed corn," as Congressman
Kildee said, our economic future will be in jeopardy.
The interviews with the Members usually lasted about an hour. On several
occasions, the Member extended his time with us. In fact, Congressman Vernon Ehlers called
his next appointment from our meeting room to tell them that he would be one-half an hour
It is more effective to have the appointments in their district offices
than in Washington, D.C. Interviews on Capitol Hill tend to be rushed. The delegation is
scheduled for thirty minutes. The Congressperson arrives fifteen minutes late. After ten
minutes of the interview, the bell rings for a vote. A secretary comes in to announce five
people are waiting to see him and he's got to be downtown for a lunch meeting in twenty
minutes. So you end up with a fifteen minute interview with four interruptions.
These interviews in their district offices are quiet. They are
uninterrupted. They last about an hour, frequently longer. The Member is meeting with his
constituents in his home office and he or she pays attention. Meeting the
Congressperson in his District underscores the fact that Sigma Xi is a grassroots
organization. This enhances the legitimacy of the points we are making. Congresspeople
talk constantly with lobbyists while they are in Washington. To them, the meetings in
their home offices are real.
Do the Interviews Work?
Before we began to have any interviews, we wondered if research
scientists would be good at them. They had no previous political experience. Many had
never even met a Member of Congress before. They are very busy and frequently out-of-town
or out of the country. People on Capitol Hill had warned us that scientists were prone to
become over-enthusiastic about their work and too technical in their discussion thus
causing Members to become bewildered or sleepy.
Another question was would the scientists actually leave their
laboratories and their classes long enough to go on these appointments. The answer was
yes, as long as they were contacted in advance with a specific time and date, not a
general inquiry about their possible availability.
We can now state that not a single scientist on the interviews ever
became too technical. They gave examples which were fully understandable by the Members
and were clear in their exposition of the basic ideas.
The answer as to whether the interviews work demands a response on two
Do they educate the scientists?
Do they educate the Congresspeople?
On both levels, the answer is yes. To our knowledge, all of the
scientists who have gone on these interviews felt satisfied; some were exhilarated.
Frequently, they would offer to go on more interviews or would recruit other people from
their Sigma Xi chapters to go.
Regarding the Members: by December, 1997 we were about one-half way
through our second set of interviews. The most dramatic change was with Rep. Peter
Hoekstra, a conservative Republican from western Michigan. During our first interview, he
stated categorically that the Federal government had no business being in research.
"If it's important, the corporations will do it." The response was from a
microbiologist from Upjohn who looked him right in the eye and said, "Congressman, my
company is cutting $200,000,000 out of research. We all depend on the universities. If
they don't do it we are all dead."
This year, a smiling Congressman Hoekstra welcomed us into his office
saying, "We're going to have a budget surplus. Some of it should certainly go to R
and D." We then proceeded to discuss if R and D should get a percentage of the GNP.
Rep. Dale Kildee told us that in his 22 years in Congress, the
only visits from scientists he has ever had were the two visits from Sigma Xi.
"I see plenty of the tire kickers (automotive lobbyists) but you all are the only
working scientists I ever meet with." He asked for a science advisory group to meet
with him regularly.
Rep. Vernon Ehlers, Vice Chairman of the House Science committee told us
last year "If we had had groups like yours in every Congressional District, it would
have taken me a week to save NSF instead of three months."
In every case, the scientists who went on the interviews felt that the
Member was educated about the critical importance of sustained federal funding for
research and development and the need to massively upgrade science and math education.
Some of the Congresspeople like the powerful Rep. John Dingell or physicist Rep. Vernon
Ehlers already knew a good deal about the subject. Others, like Rep. Dave Camp, Rep. Sandy
Levin and Rep. Peter Hoekstra did not. However, once they were over their initial
reaction, "But what are you really here for?" and saw that as
members of Sigma Xi we were not there as lobbyists but as dedicated scientists committed
to the future of research and the economic health of our nation, they became open and
willing to listen.
Sigma Xi - The Ideal Organization For Work With Congress
As Skip Stiles, House Science committee staff said,
"Washington lobbyists would give their eye teeth for an organization like Sigma Xi.
You have the perfect set-up. You have a lateral organization and a vertical information
flow." There are Sigma Xi chapters in or adjacent to the vast majority of
Sigma Xi represents every scientific and engineering discipline. So we
can speak with an eloquence perhaps found in no other professional society about the need
for research and development and the necessity for outstanding math and science education.
Our experience in Michigan, a medium sized state with sixteen Members of
Congress ranging from very progressive to extremely conservative has been an excellent
test case. We have had eighteen interviews and have covered eleven out of our sixteen
person delegation. Congresspeople of every political persuasion have been seen.
If it can be done in Michigan, it can be done anywhere.
For Further Information
968 Roxburgh Ave.
East Lansing, MI 48823
Dept. of Biochemistry, MSU
East Lansing, MI 48824
AAAS Working with Congress: A Practical Guide for
Scientists and Engineers. For practical advice on how to approach your
representatives, what to say to them, how to prepare and how to follow up after your
meeting, consider ordering the AAAS guide. Visiting the AAAS Web site will allow you to go
straight to an excerpt The 17
Cardinal Rules for working with Congress, an extremely useful document for all
chapter members involved in science advocacy.
We are also providing another
excerpt from the same publication: "Working with State
and District Offices," for your information.
A copy of this publication is
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