Physics Meets Policy

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Development and Fundraising

Physics Meets Policy

Sponsoring physics undergraduates to work in the heart of the nation’s capital


John Mather, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, 2006 Nobel Laureate in Physics

Sigma Pi Sigma Development, Connecting donors to student programs treeIn 2006 John Mather was a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his precise measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Three years later, he used part of his prize money to promote awareness of and experience with the policy process among physics undergraduates. The John and Jane Mather Foundation for Science and the Arts and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) created the AIP Mather Policy Intern Program, which sends undergraduate physics majors to work in offices on Capitol Hill each summer through the Society of Physics Students Summer Internship Program.

I was inspired to start the Mather Interns in Public Policy program by a conversation with physicist Bill Foster, who asked for my support as a Nobel laureate in his congressional election campaign to represent Illinois’ 11th district. Bill worked at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. He was part of the team that discovered the top quark, so I knew he was a top scientist. I also knew that working in politics requires a very different outlook and a different skill set from mine.

So I asked him how he, with his background in physics, had become interested in politics. He said he had spent some of his youth in Washington, DC, where his parents were civil rights lawyers. My feeling for many years has been that Washington needs more technical talent on Capitol Hill. Almost every big problem we face as a nation has a major scientific or engineering component, or at the very least should face questions about what the evidence shows about what works and what doesn’t.

The American Institute of Physics (AIP),  American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have very successful Congressional Fellow programs for people with PhDs in the physical sciences, but I didn’t have enough money to make a big difference there. I thought about Bill Foster’s story, and I thought about starting younger.

John Mather, SPS interns Katherine Stankus and Nikki Sanford, and Rep. Bill Foster (left-to-right) stand on the steps of the United States Capitol. Photo courtesy of Katherine Stankus.Then I started looking around for organizations that could do something with my idea. I realized that I already knew one close to home, the American Institute of Physics. I got in touch and learned that they already had a summer intern program in which students lived in downtown Washington. It would be very easy to add a couple more positions and have them assigned to work on Capitol Hill. So we tried it out, and I’ve been very pleased with the students who came to learn the game at Capitol Hill. I think they’ve been very pleased too.

The Mather interns are all different, but they all say it is a very valuable experience for them. One said she was planning to run for president! And their “supervisors,” if one can call them that, have been very pleased to have them. This year I had breakfast with the two interns and Congressman Bill Foster, one of the two physicists in the House of Representatives. Everyone seemed very happy to be working together. I think the interns were all a bit surprised at how things really get done on the Hill.

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