June 8, 2012 | 1
Congressman Robert Walker represented Pennsylvania in the United States House of Representatives as a Republican from 1977 to 1997. He’s has taken an interest in helping scientists understand Congress, and he invited me to his marble office building on K Street in Washington DC to interview him. Walker was Chairman of the Committee on Science and Technology, then called the Science Committee. I asked him some questions that had been burning in my mind about how we scientists should behave when we’re interacting with Congress.
MK: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve seen a scientist make when addressing you or when addressing members of Congress?
RW: Oh, gee. I’m sure it was something along these lines. There were people from the science community who came in and were fairly arrogant in the way in which they approached the Congress. Like “I’m smarter than you are. I have a Nobel Prize.” Or “I’m the superior person here in the room,” and it came across very, very clearly in a hearing. Members of Congress don’t react very well to that. He may well be the smartest guy in the room, but his job at that point is to take the rest of us who may not be as smart and make us smart enough to be able to make a good judgment.
MK: How about what’s the best thing that you’ve seen a scientist do before Congress? Tell me about the scientist who really impressed you.
RW: They were usually people who had a genuine excitement about their work and then could translate it into layman’s terms. They brought a storyline with them if you will. They came across as really committed to what they were doing and really excited about the potential of what they were doing. So that generally came across very, very well in the Congress.
MK: Can you give me an example of someone in particular?
RW: Again, I don’t remember particular personalities that were good at that. Just off the top of my head I’m not coming up with somebody that I can point out. One of the guys who’s around right now who is really good at this, and I don’t remember him testifying before Congress but he’s really, really, really good at it, is Neil deGrasse Tyson. Neil is just fabulous at taking science concepts, boiling them down in a way that the general public and politicians can understand it.
MK: What does he do that’s so compelling?
RW: Well, for one thing he loves his subject. I remember when we were doing the Aerospace Commission, where we went down to a Conference Center down here in Virginia that’s owned by the government. We’d finished dinner and it was dark out. I was walking back alone and so on, and I came back. Here was Neil. He had members of the Commission and the staff sitting on the steps of one of the buildings and so on. He had a segment of the sky, and he was pointing out. He was telling all the stories of the mythologies, the stars, what part of the galaxy they were, how far out they were, and all of this kind of stuff and so on. He was excited about it and so on, and he was putting it in story terms and so on. The group was just absolutely enthralled by it.
That’s just neat. That’s who he is. When we talk about astronomy being a basic science, there’s a guy who takes basic science and makes it so exciting that people are standing and cheering at the end of it.
MK: So let’s say you were a scientist, and you were planning to make a pilgrimage to D.C. and go have your 15‑minute meeting with your representative. How would you make a good impression?
RW: Well, first of all to recognize that most members of Congress don’t serve on Committees that have a science orientation. So you have to make the presentation in a form that is understandable to a guy who is not going to be looking at the subject matter in any depth. Congressmen just don’t have the bandwidth in order to do things in depth. So if you want to get it across take your best punch line‑‑what it is you’d like to see as the end product, why you think it’s important‑‑and then be excited about the fact that if Congress actually did it, that it would make a difference.
That’s what members of Congress want to hear. They don’t want to hear about the bench tests. They don’t need a lesson in all of the physics theories or chemical theories that go into it. What they need to know is why it’s important, what needs to be done in order to bring it to fruition, and why that would be an exciting outcome.
Images: Wikimedia Commons