Adept at communicating complex ideas to lay audiences, Vest has focused a large part of his efforts on educating policymakers. “Few people in the White House or in Congress have an understanding of science and technology,” explains Lane. Vest’s position as university vice chairman for the Council on Competitiveness has helped him serve his broad mission of educating Washington. The Council, comprising corporate CEOs, university presidents, and labor leaders, advises government personnel on policy matters related to U.S. industrial competitiveness and technological innovation. In the early 1990s Vest and former Hewlett-Packard CEO and president John Young, chair of the council at the time, created a congressional forum on science and technology, following requests from Senator John Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). The idea was that congressional “staff would become better informed,” Crowley says. “They would brief their members, and this would strengthen the debate in the House and the Senate.” The forums, which are sponsored by the Council on Competitiveness, remain a tradition to this day. When Congress is in session, 200 to 300 staffers meet for a monthly lunchtime briefing to hear from leading experts on a science and technology issue the staffers select.For several years Vest has also invited senior congressional staff to MIT for science and technology seminars sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The congressional staff select topics for discussion, but in contrast to the monthly congressional forums, only two-dozen members come to campus for the two-day session. The seminars have covered such topics as global climate change and emerging defense technologies. This April the sessions will focus on transportation issues.
But the event that garnered the most congressional attention was the “Breakfast of Champions.” Held last summer, the breakfast honored 35 members of Congress who have received Champion of Science awards for having demonstrated strong support for federal investment in university research in science and engineering. The award was established in 1999 by the Science Coalition-an advocacy group of 60 public and private universities established in 1995 at the initiative of Vest and Neil Rudenstine, then president of Harvard University-to promote federal funding of university research in science and engineering.
With help from General Mills, the breakfast organizers were able to give each of the senators and representatives a personalized Wheaties box printed with his or her photograph. “It was a great success,” says Crowley. “It accomplished exactly what we wanted it to do in raising the profile of science in Congress.”