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MIT Technology Review

Mobilizing MIT voices on the Hill

Alumni speak up for science policy through the Legislative Advocacy Network.

On a mild day in early March 2020, five members of the MIT community were working Capitol Hill. Racing from one appointment to another in the offices of senators and representatives, they were on a mission to impress upon lawmakers and their staffs the vital importance of consistent federal funding for research. 

“If we want more people to like and pursue science, we’ve got to invest,” says Robert L. Hillman Jr. ’84, who was part of the MIT delegation. “It will make a difference. It will move the needle and increase the competitiveness of the United States.” 

Robert L. Hillman Jr. ’84, Athena N. Edmonds ’83, John Gavenonis ’98, and R. Erich Caulfield, SM ’01, PhD ’06, visited Capitol Hill in early 2020 to advocate for investing in science.
KATE STOLL

Hillman, three other alumni, and a staff member from the MIT Washington Office spent the day on the Hill to share this message as members of the Legislative Advocacy Network (LAN), which is facilitated by the MIT Alumni Association (MITAA). Many alumni see such advocacy as a natural extension of MIT’s mission to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will serve the nation and the world in the 21st century. Through LAN, US alumni can act as a strong nonpartisan force in support of the education, research, and innovation priorities championed by MIT. 

“LAN specializes in mobilizing alumni voices,” says John Gavenonis ’98, chair of the LAN Advisory Committee. “It doesn’t matter what a person’s background or political affiliations are, whether they’re a new MIT alum or if they’re wearing a red jacket to reunions. The uniting factor is everyone has come to MIT because they care about science and technology.”

A steady drumbeat for research

The need for a concerted advocacy effort became obvious with the Budget Control Act of 2011, which set limits on federal spending, making the competition among programs for funding more intense. Gavenonis, an MITAA board director at the time, sought to provide fellow alumni with a way to act. Inspired by his previous advocacy work with the American Chemical Society, he worked with the Association and the MIT Washington Office to found LAN. 

The first iteration of LAN focused on what is called one-click advocacy: find your member of Congress, write a letter, make a call. In 2019, LAN refocused its mission on more expansive engagement.  

LAN serves to connect the MIT Office of the President (where the Institute’s strategic direction is determined), the Washington Office (which is part of the president’s office and identifies federal policy items that would support that direction), and alumni eager to take grassroots action. Interested alumni opt in through the Alumni Association website to receive updates from the Institute regarding specific federal legislation, the federal budget process in general, and how to be effective when opportunities for advocacy arise. 

“LAN specializes in mobilizing alumni voices. It doesn’t matter what a person’s background or political affiliations are ... everyone has come to MIT because they care about science and technology.”

Reliable funding for research and development is likely to remain one of these areas of focus. “It’s a perennial issue,” says Kate Stoll, senior policy advisor in the MIT Washington Office. “We need that constant drumbeat of STEM folks talking about why fundamental research is so critical to the nation’s competitiveness, to our workforce development. It’s something that doesn’t get old.”

Which is why, just two weeks before much of the nation went into covid-19 lockdown, Stoll accompanied four MIT alumni to Capitol Hill to engage lawmakers on several Institute legislative priorities, including the importance of passing the Endless Frontier Act. 

The bill (likely, as of press time, to be reintroduced in the new Congress) was drafted with a view to increasing the nation’s technological leadership and competitiveness. With a name that evokes the famous 1945 report commissioned by President Franklin Roosevelt from Vannevar Bush, EngD 1916, former dean of MIT’s School of Engineering, the bipartisan, bicameral bill would create a new technology directorate at the National Science Foundation and authorize $100 billion over five years to fund it. The directorate would be focused on key technology areas, including artificial intelligence and quantum information science. 

For LAN’s first Capitol Hill visit, Stoll was joined by then MITAA president
R. Erich Caulfield, SM ’01, PhD ’06, and LAN Advisory Committee members Hillman, Gavenonis, and Athena N. Edmonds ’83. The group went to the offices of Democratic representative Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware, Republican senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, and others, meeting with the members of Congress, or their staff, to talk about research funding and the deep impact of STEM, both societally and personally. 

“My story was basically: I grew up as a Black child in a high-poverty neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York,” says Hillman. “I had access to science kits in my classroom in fourth and fifth grade. And thank God there was funding for them to be there, because the presence of those kits inspired me to study and excel and ultimately go to Stuyvesant High School and then MIT.” After earning his degree in electrical engineering, Hillman went on to work as a research scientist and investment banker.

“Personal stories are always powerful,” says Edmonds, who studied materials science and engineering and management at MIT and whose varied career has included advocating for the rights of trans people and LGBTQ youth. “We combined those with the broader points that we needed to get across, and then set up the relationship [with the congressperson’s office] so Kate could take over as a representative of the Institute in the future.”

Says Gavenonis, who brought to Capitol Hill his perspective as an executive at life sciences firm Agilent Technologies: “There’s no more powerful message for members of Congress than a constituent coming in and expressing an interest about a policy matter.” LAN plans to increase its engagement in 2021 with more webinars and possibly another Capitol outreach effort to support the Endless Frontier Act—virtually for now, with hopes for more in-person visits in a post-pandemic future.

Advocacy in many forms

Another way for alumni to make their voices heard is the MIT Science Policy Review, a scientist-run online publication started in 2019 by MIT PhD candidate Anthony Tabet. The journal spun out from the MIT Science Policy Initiative, a long-standing student advocacy group that collaborates closely with the Washington Office, while Tabet was its communications director.

“We create jargon-free articles for non–subject matter experts that explain in an unbiased way different science policy approaches to solving a particular problem,” says Tabet, a chemical engineer. “We are also interested in teaching members of the MIT community to talk about science policy in a jargon-free way to get buy-in from nonscientists.”

Articles are written by students and alumni alike (for example, the inaugural issue featured an article coauthored by Boston University postdoc Hanny E. Rivera, PhD ’19, and two colleagues from other universities on how damaged coral reefs affect the food supply). Bryan Bryson ’07, PhD ’13, Danielle DeLatte ’11, Paula Hammond ’84, PhD ’93, Pamela Melroy, SM ’84, and Jenna Sternberg ’11 also sit on the board (along with Tabet and David Goldston, director of the MIT Washington Office). Still other alums, including Gavenonis, have provided financial and networking support.

“Science doesn’t make policy, but science absolutely should inform policy,” says Gavenonis. “And MIT alumni are uniquely positioned as a credible voice in that conversation.”

Join the LAN mailing list for updates on MIT’s legislative priorities, ideas on ways to engage, and invitations to LAN events. Sign up here.