MIT Washington Office Stresses Importance of Science/Tech in Election

MIT is a multitasker. In addition to being an institute of higher education, MIT is a political force with its own office in Washington.

Headed by William B. Bonvillian, the MIT Washington Office takes it upon itself to track legislation concerning universities or research and development, follow new research policies developed by federal agencies, and to make sure MIT stays involved in national science policy forums. In a nutshell, the Washington Office serves as the connection that links MIT to the rest of the world.

The Washington Office was instrumental in developing the MIT Washington DC Summer Internship Program. Through this program, students utilize their technical backgrounds to participate in the work of federal agencies and advocacy groups, thus influencing public policy.

The Washington Office plays a supporting role when MIT community members become involved in policy and helps forge connections that make their involvement possible. Currently, the Washington Office is even keeping an eye on the presidential campaigns.

“MIT and President Hockfield are very interested in engaging both major candidates at this point, but it is very important that we reach out equally”, said Kirk Kolenbrander, the Vice President of Institute Affairs and Secretary of the Corporation.

Along those lines, an energy debate between the Obama and McCain campaigns, hosted by the MIT Energy Club and Energy Initiative, will be held on Oct. 6 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium. Former CIA Director James Woolsey will represent the McCain campaign, and Jason Grumet, executive director of the National Commission on Energy Policy will represent the Obama campaign.

Keeping to MIT’s traditionally bipartisan stance, the Washington Office has supplied reference materials and questions to both major contenders — John McCain and Barack Obama — encouraging them to engage in constructive dialogue about science policy. These reference materials include MIT’s understanding of the issues at hand along with information MIT professors helped put together. The Washington Office tries to help both candidates’ understanding of science and technology issues.

Ensuring that science and technology stay on the bill in the presidential debates is the Washington Office’s top priority, but political commentators worry that these vital issues are being glossed over. Thomas Friedman contends in his New York Times column that “While we still have enormous innovative energy bubbling up from the American people, it is not being supported and nurtured as needed in today’s super-competitive world. Right now, we feel like a country in a very slow decline — in infrastructure, basic research and education …” Indeed, these are grim predictions especially for the MIT community. And according to Bonvillian, the new president’s policy will play an important role in MIT and its missions to pursue great science and great technology.

Numerous MIT faculty members are involved in policy-making. On Sept. 12, institute professor John M. Deutch testified for the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Deutch pushed for a tax on carbon emissions, increased energy efficiency standards, a dramatic increase in federal funding for research on alternative energy solutions, development of domestic gas production infrastructure, and expansion of commercial nuclear power.

On Sept. 10, President Susan Hockfield testified for the House Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. In an op-ed article in the Washington Post from Sept. 11, Hockfield called for increased federal funding for energy research. She wrote “In my view, the nation should move promptly to triple current rates [of energy research funding], then increase funding further as the Energy Department builds its capacity to convert basic research into marketable technologies.” Hockfield wrote that she believes doing this will help untangle the nation’s “triple knot” of a failing economy, energy consumption and security politics, and growing evidence of climate change.

Hockfield has been busy traveling and speaking about science policy. This June, Obama invited President Hockfield to speak on a nonpartisan forum at Carnegie Mellon University. The forum, which concluded Obama’s “Change that Works for You” tour, highlighted investments in education, green jobs, and fair trade. President Hockfield is also co-chair of the American Association of Universities, a task force of major university leaders working to advise national leaders. Recently, President Hockfield has also invited both McCain and Obama to speak on energy, science, and technology policy at MIT.

Deutch and Hockfield reflect the Washington Office’s policy stance. “There is no magic bullet”, said Kolenbrander. MIT supports both nuclear and alternative energy and believes we must work aggressively to improve both. As for research funding, more is always better. “The nation’s wellbeing depends on sustained commitment by the federal government to support the research and innovation that goes on at MIT” said Kolenbrander.

The Washington Office’s interest extends beyond the campaigns. Whichever candidate becomes President, the Washington Office will continue its long history of involvement in national science and technology policy. It will continue to lobby for financial support for research, raise awareness among young people about the excitement and opportunities in science and technology, and help our nation’s policy-makers promote science and technology.