Once a year, members of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Board of Directors gather in Washington to visit members of Congress to advocate and inform members and staff about priorities in chemistry and the broader scientific community. This year’s event included a small group of younger chemists who had attended the advocacy training workshop in Washington last fall so they could each have their first experience with visits to Capitol Hill.
Our big priorities this year remain steady and reliable funding for research and development in the federal budget. Although a funding bill has been passed to fund the government through September 30th and although the bill has a modest increase allocated to S&T R&D, it is important to make sure that agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, DOE’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology are well-funded when the large allocations are broken down into smaller budgets.
When speaking to a member of Congress, it is important to contextualize an issue in terms of how it affects an individual state or district, which always leads me to fascinating research to allow me to illustrate the importance of various agencies. This year I learned that ARPA-E is specifically designed to fund longshot projects that could be transformative if they are successful. Thus I learned about a project in Connecticut that would use iron catalysts to produce hydrogen gas for direct use and for grid storage. The importance of iron is that it is a common and inexpensive metal in sharp contrast with the pricey platinum group metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium which power the catalytic converter in an automobile or the rare earth elements such as dysprosium or neodymium that are found in limits deposits globally. Using iron would be a huge step forward in the cost and environmental sustainability of hydrogen production. Likewise, I assume that the grid storage component would mean producing hydrogen through electrolysis during the daytime when solar photovoltaics are at their peak. Then at night, the hydrogen can be fed back into fuel cells to produce electricity to power our lights without relying on traditional fossil fuels. And that was just one of the cool projects that I learned about that reinforce how funding scientific research and development powers our economy.
I was also happy to put in a plug for the Chemical Safety Board, which has twice been targeted for elimination by the President’s budget but has been funded at a stable level in the final Congressional budgets. The CSB is modeled on the National Transportation Safety Board. As I put it, “They don’t regulate, and they don’t assign penalties, so no one has to hate them.” The CSB goes in after a chemical incident to figure out what happened, why it happened, and what lessons can be learned so the same problem never occurs again. They issue recommendations rather than assigning blame, and many of those recommendations are adopted. Most recently, they worked through the sequence of events around the organic peroxide explosions at the Arkema facility in Houston after the extreme flooding occurred during Hurricane Harvey. Through their video about the event (they have a large number of groupies for their videos), I learned just how many efforts the staff at the plant made to try to maintain refrigeration for the peroxides. They do invaluable work for an agency of just 40 people.
Kristin, the younger chemist who was my partner for the day, had an invaluable experience by visiting the staff of the two senators from her state. She’s from a purple state, so she has a senator from each party. She was surprised but very pleased that she got an equally warm reception from the staff members in both offices, and she was treated with attentive courtesy on both occasions.
I did get to apply my former staffer knowledge since Kristin and I had some spare time in the morning. We picked up gallery passes from my congressman and even got an intern to take us through the tunnels to the Capitol rather than having to go outside. We were present in the Senate gallery at the opening of the session, which scored us sightings of four senators as well as hearing a nice tribute to Barbara Bush. The formality of the Senate was contrasted with the quirkiness of the House during Morning Business, a time when representatives can give five minute speeches. My favorite one began, “I represent all the welfare queens…”
At the end of the day, I was able to stop in at the Bennet office and see a few of the folks who I still know there, which was a special treat. Although I really miss my staff badge, I always feel excited and empowered when I visit my elected officials.