Scientists in Washington

Bonvillian connects MIT to policy makers

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: Because of an editing error, a this article states incorrectly that Scott A. Uebelhart ’98 is a current postdoctoral fellow and is working on a white paper entitled “The Future of Human Spaceflight.” Uebelhart has already finished his postdoctoral work, and published the white paper in 2008.

In Washington, D.C., “Bill knows everyone, and everyone knows Bill,” said Albert J. Swiston G, president of the MIT Science Policy Initiative student group.

As well, perhaps, Bill should. As the director of the MIT Washington Office, it’s William B. Bonvillian’s job to make sure MIT’s voice is heard by the nation’s policy makers. And, though the two institutions can differ in culture and opinion, the staff at the Washington Office has found that in plenty of situations their goals are in sync.

The staff tries to make the most of these situations. They set up meetings where MIT professors brief congressional staffers on their research, keep MIT labs informed about federal legislation that impacts their missions, and holds seminars to teach legislators about science and scientists about policy, among other activities.

The office’s three main employees, Bonvillian, Assistant Director Alison Fox, and Senior Legislative Assistant Abby Benson, are all registered lobbyists, but they don’t pursue earmarks. “We are not advocates to get the federal government to give particular grants,” said Bonvillian. “What we do is support what’s healthy for science and technology.”

“We look to represent MIT in moving the national agenda forward,” said Fox.

The office likes to connect MIT affiliates who have deep backgrounds in policy-relevant research topics with Washington officials who might benefit from hearing expert opinions. The details of these students’ and professors’ experiences vary widely, but they share a common theme of working to bolster support for and understand science in the federal government.

Swiston, a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, first connected with the office in 2006 through SPI’s Science Policy Bootcamp, an annual IAP seminar taught by Bonvillian about the basics of science policy creation. Since then, Swiston has been involved in each annual Congressional Visits Day, during which scientists and engineers, including graduate students from universities throughout the country, descend upon Washington to lobby for federal support for science and engineering research and education. The Washington Office supports the MIT students who attend by helping them arrange meeting with officials and teaching the students “how to lobby and advocate, make impactful messages, and consider political realities,” said Swiston.

The students speak mostly with staff that support members of Congress, but some meetings take place with the senators and representatives themselves. Last year, Swiston said the students had an exciting moment when they met with Massachusetts Representative Edward J. Markey on the United States Capitol rotunda during one of his breaks between votes.

During their 20 minute conversation, Swiston said that Markey asked members of the group to tell him about their research and asked for their opinion on the America Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, which Markey cosponored. “He was very receptive to criticism,” Swiston said.

Getting MIT voices heard

Lara M. Pierpoint, a PhD student in the Engineering Systems Division, said she “fell in love with the policy world,” as an undergraduate while interning at the National Academy of Sciences. Enrolling in the Technology and Policy Program and Department of Nuclear Engineering at MIT for her Master’s felt natural. She has interacted with policy makers in D.C. in a variety of contexts, including trips with the Technology and Policy program and the MIT Energy Club, which she led as president in the 2008-2009 academic year, and on her own, as an intern at the Department of Energy in the summer of 2006. Pierpoint called the Washington Office an “invaluable resource” during many of her trips to D.C. in part because the staff are “very steeped in whatever is going on [in Washington] at the time.”

While Swiston and Pierpoint delved into the policy world as graduate students, Scott A. Uebelhart ’98 earned his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT before getting involved in policy. Now, as a postdoctoral researcher in the Science, Technology, and Society Program’s Space, Policy, and Society Research Group, Uebelhart is collaborating on a policy-oriented white paper entitled “The Future of Human Spaceflight.”

The idea for the paper arose, Uebelhart said, in conversations between Bonvillian and the directors of the Science, Technology, and Society program. Once the paper was finished in December 2008, he said, the Washington Office staff, organized a trip to Washington for the paper’s authors to discuss their work with those policy makers who were looking at it.

“The most impressive meeting was with the Obama transition team for NASA,” whose leader went on to become the second-in-command at NASA, Uebelhart said. He said he felt that the paper may have sparked some conversations among the policy makers about human space flight.

Like Uebelhart, physics professor and Vice President for Research Claude R. Canizares, got started in policy after developing a full-fledged research career. Today he spends a lot of his time on policy, often in collaboration with the Washington Office. He plays a key role in MIT’s efforts to deal with, as he puts it, “issues important to all research universities.” This sometimes means “trying to advocate for why it’s good to have basic research,” he said, but at other times means advocating for specific policies or programs.

Canizares’s research at NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory was what originally drew him into policy work, but now he works on a range of issues that bring him down to D.C. a few days each month, by his own estimates.

Recently, he said, he has devoted effort to reforming export control regulations which, he described which sound “a little obscure, but affect us [at MIT] in complicated ways.” The regulations control not only the export of physical objects but also the sharing of information and ideas with foreign nationals, Canizares explained. The regulations are outdated and unnecessarily restrictive, he said, and can cause problems for graduate students who are not US citizens who need to use their own labs’ data and equipment for their research. He said that a report by a National Academy of Sciences committee he sits on has prompted President Obama to request a review of the regulations.

Thinking like a Washingtonian

Uebelhart, Swiston, Pierpoint, Canizares, and the staff of the MIT Washington Office agree that they have found Washington officials to be a receptive audience. “People [in Washington], by and large, despite the fact that they get a bad rap, are really trying hard to do the right thing and are dealing with a huge number of complex issues,” Canizares said. “They are grateful for a clear statement of an issue and why you are arguing for it...I’ve never had anyone be dismissive.” And, “frankly,” he said, “the MIT name carries a fair amount of weight.”

Still, they know that things work differently in MIT and D.C.

Pierpoint’s MIT affiliation placed her in an awkward position at the beginning of her internship of the Department of Energy. Professors in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering had recently expressed strong disapproval of a nuclear agenda that her office was working to implement. The professors thought many parts of the agenda were premature, while the Department of Energy saw itself taking advantage of a brief political window of opportunity, Pierpoint said.

Uebelhart said that as a lifelong engineer, he learned the importance of looking at issues from a policy perspective when writing his white paper and visiting Washington. He initially felt surprised, he said, to find that some technical and research aspects of space flight programs mattered less to congresspeople than “these ideas of pride, prestige, and global leadership” which he learned “are the bread and butter on Capitol hill.”

He learned that “strong connections” matter in D.C.: “From an engineering or science perspective, you say the policy world sounds fuzzy...but it’s where all our funding comes from, and I think that at least having an appreciation for that is important,” he said.

MIT president Susan J. Hockfield visits Washington almost every month to meet with senior agency and administrative officials and members of Congress Bonvillian said, who said she has made “a commitment to MIT’s national role that’s unusual for university presidents,” Bonvillian said. Her efforts to promote the MIT Energy Initiative have been particularly impactful, said Bonvillian, and in the past year, MIT provided about 20 witnesses to energy policy hearings in Congress.

Fox said she thinks that, at the same time, congressional staff have become better educated in the sciences and more receptive to technical perspectives. “In a lot of ways congressional staff has jumped up a notch and really understand and appreciate [scientific] issues,” she said.

Since over 70 percent of MIT’s research funding comes from the federal government, the entire MIT community can hope to benefit from these developments, especially if they believe, as Bonvillian does that, “if US innovation and science and technology are healthy, then it will be fine.”