Space sciences lab looks to future federal ties
Congresswoman Lofgren discusses federal funding and regulations with researchers

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs


tour of SSL

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren gets a tour of the Space Sciences Lab on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2001
Noah Berger photo

02 March 2001 | Researchers at Berkeley’s Samuel L. Silver Space Sciences Laboratory had the ear of U.S. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren as she toured the facility during a campus visit last week.

Scientists explained their research, teaching and outreach efforts and discussed issues with Lofgren (D-San Jose), who sits on the House Science Committee and its subcommittee on space and aeronautics.

“We want to know what the future holds for institutions like ours under the Bush administration,” Robert Lin, director of the lab and professor of physics, said during his opening remarks to Lofgren.

The lab, one of the country’s preeminent space science facilities, has participated in more than 50 space missions, including NASA’s Apollo, Mars and Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer programs. Most of the lab’s funding comes from federal programs, like NASA and the National Science Foundation.

During her visit, Lofgren heard presentations on the lab’s current research, including the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which uses the world’s largest radio telescope to scan the skies for signals from other civilizations; the High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager, an earth-orbiting satellite to study solar flares, due to launch this spring; and Fast Auroral Snapshot Explorer, a satellite that investigates the origin of Earth’s aurora.

After the tour, Lofgren sat down with the scientists to discuss their concerns. Chief among them: government funding and federal regulations that they said hamper their research.

For example, new NASA security guidelines for unclassified information technology require screening of personnel, including fingerprinting and background checks on researchers, a policy that is contrary to the university’s.

Similarly, regulations under the International Traffic in Arms Act, regulated by the Department of State, obligate universities working with foreign institutions to sign contracts that conflict with UC’s public domain research and anti-discrimination policies.

Lofgren and several researchers speculated that these stricter regulations could be a reaction to the Wen Ho Lee case. Lee, a Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear scientist, was accused of spying for China but was later acquitted for lack of evidence.

“There has never been any breach of security in our work,” said researcher Janet Luhmann. “The government has overreacted with these restrictions. I’m on the phone with lawyers instead of doing my work.”

Politics is at the root of the problem, Lofgren said. Tighter regulations were implemented, she said, to combat what some in Congress felt were lax security policies of the Clinton administration.

“The matter is now further complicated by the change in administration,” she said.

Because some of these same issues affect the high-tech industry, Lofgren suggested that lab researchers form partnerships with high-tech businesses, because “they get more attention from lawmakers.”

President Bush’s proposed tax cuts may affect funding for programs like SETI and the lab’s outreach programs, said Lofgren.

“With his promise to lower taxes and increase military funding, there will be no way to balance the budget unless major cuts are made elsewhere, including NASA,” Lofgren said.

She said “tightly defined and modestly budgeted” proposals from the lab need to “emanate from the Hill, not NASA.”

Lofgren asked researchers to send their proposals to her and suggested they network with scientists facing similar issues in other parts of the country.

The congresswoman also met with Richard Newton, dean of the College of Engineering, to discuss the planned Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society.

CITRIS is an interdisciplinary institute that would bring the power of information technology to bear on such broad societal needs as transportation, education, emergency preparedness and health care. Gov. Gray Davis has recommended $100 million to fund the center in three annual installments, the first in his proposed 2001-02 budget.

Lofgren represents many of CITRIS’s corporate sponsors and deals with issues of intellectual property as a member of the House Judiciary Committee.


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