Friday, November 20, 2009

Congress and Nuclear Power:

A View from the Hill

I recently attended a very interesting and entertaining ANS Washington DC local section lecture by Matthew Milazzo on his experiences as an ANS Congressional Fellow this year. The experience led me to think that this blog might be a good place to plug the value of such an experience--to the individual involved, to the US Congress, and to the entire nuclear enterprise.

I was initially inclined to skip the lecture. After all, I had other things to do that day, and furthermore, I had worked on the Hill myself, so I wondered if what he had to say would seem "old hat" to me.

I couldn't have been more wrong about the latter. It helped, of course, that Matt was an entertaining speaker and had interesting visuals. It helped even more that he was a keen observer and had a true--and current--insider's view. Matt works for a Senator. I had worked for Congressional Research Service, a little known branch of the Library of Congress. In that capacity, we served all the Members of Congress and all the Committees--House and Senate, Democrat and Republican, senior members and junior members. While that gave me a very broad view of what was going on, I didn't normally have "inside" access to any office. Matt does. Furthermore, my experience was some time ago. While not too much has changed about the way Congress works, at least a little bit has changed. In part, for me, the talk reminded me of old memories of my days on the Hill, but in part, it gave me yet another take on the intricacies of this institution.

But most of all, Matt's remarks reminded me of the sense I felt, when I worked on the Hill, that more engineers ought to work in public policy in general, and for Congress in particular. It is a well-known fact that very few members of Congress are scientists or engineers. It is a little less known, but still true, that very few of their staff members are scientists or engineers. And yet, it is the members of Congress, supported by their staffers, who make all the decisions on technical issues that affect the technical community--and that affect the entire country. It is the Congress that sets the budgets for Federally-funded research and development. It is the Congress that sets the policies that guide energy use and climate change.

For these reasons, the Congress desperately needs people with technical knowledge. It is true that Congress gets inputs and advice from many sources. The nuclear industry, just like every other industry, has a significant lobbying effort to get their voice heard on the Hill. Congress frequently invites experts from industry and the national laboratories to testify in hearings. Technical people write letters. And Congressional Research Service, where I used to work, has a cadre of experts available to answer questions and provide analyses for all Members of Congress.

That is not enough. It is really helpful to have people in the congressional offices, helping the Members of Congress with their day-to-day work. It is also helpful to have more scientists and engineers who really, really understand how the political process works and how to get things done.

Fortunately, some of the Representatives and Senators who have been most engaged in technical issues have hired staff members with technical backgrounds. The staffs of the technically-oriented committees also include people with technical backgrounds.

These staff members are still a small minority, and in my opinion, a fraction of the number of technical staff Congress really needs. Matt is helping to fill that gap through his participation in a one-year fellowship sponsored by the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and coordinated with a program run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This program is supported by about 30 professional societies, covering the spectrum of technical interests, and includes an orientation on the intricacies of congressional and government activities, as well as placement in a congressional office. The professional societies provide financial support for the assignment (although it has been my experience that some employers believe the experience is so valuable that they may voluntarily make up any difference between the fellowship stipend and the employee's normal salary).

Individuals who participate in this program have an opportunity to contribute to the legislative process, and gain an understanding of the process that is often helpful to them for the remainder of their careers, as well as helpful to their professions. As Matt's very entertaining presentation showed, it isn't always an easy assignment, but it is an important one. I'd like to encourage people who are curious about such an assignment to look at Matt's presentation on the ANS Washington, DC Section website (as of this writing, it has not been posted, but soon should be).

For those who are interested, AAAS provides a general discussion of their Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program. However, each professional society administers its own program. The ANS program is called the Glenn T. Seaborg Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship. The ANS Fellow for the coming year has already been selected, but it is not too soon to be thinking ahead for 2011. I should close by noting that nuclear professionals with backgrounds in other engineering disciplines, such as mechanical or civil engineering, may qualify for fellowships from those societies as well.


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