Making a Positive Mark on Capitol Hill

10/18/23 I/O Magazine

Maintaining a physical presence in Washington, D.C. for over a decade, Duke in DC offers insights into the importance of faculty spending time engaging with policy makers.

DC Illustration Joanne Park
Making a Positive Mark on Capitol Hill

THE RAPID PACE of technological advancement and complex policy landscapes has transformed public discourse over the years. With an increasingly polarized country that often raises questions about the value of a higher education—and the value of federally funded research—it’s more important than ever for colleges and universities to be connected to Capitol Hill to shape these conversations and subsequent policy decisions.

Enhanced by a physical presence in the nation’s capital, Duke in DC, as part of the Office of Government Relations, has been working on taking a proactive approach to engaging with lawmakers in Washington D.C. to ensure that researchers and educators are seen and heard as not just members of academia, but as North Carolina citizens.

Founded in April 2012, Duke’s previously decentralized activities gained a home base and a permanent presence in the heart of Washington. Duke in DC hosts academic programs, DC-based university faculty and staff, alumni receptions, and meetings, as well as other activities and events related to official university business in Washington.

One of Duke’s key initiatives in engaging with policymakers is its participation in the annual Public Policy Forum hosted by the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE). The forum brings together engineering deans from universities across the nation, including Duke and its peers representing North Carolina, to discuss timely topics that concern engineering education and research. Other NC-based institutions in attendance typically to include North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, North Carolina State University, Campbell University, and several more.

“We generally try to prioritize meetings with the representatives of districts in which [North Carolina’s] different engineering schools are located,” said Jerome Lynch, Vinik Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. “Earlier this year, I met with representatives from the Durham area, but also Raleigh and other parts of the state. It was exciting to share with these representatives how congressional legislation directly and indirectly impacts the schools and communities they represent.”

The event serves as a platform for academic leaders to discuss pressing policy matters and engage with legislators to ensure that policy decisions align with the needs of academic institutions and their surrounding communities.

The university’s engagement with legislators involves dialogue aimed at specific goals and objectives that actively consider the diverse aspects of policymaking. The conversations are framed around key points to ensure that the university’s concerns and contributions are effectively communicated.

When Legislation and Research Investment Collide

Duke’s conversations with lawmakers often center around the advancement of technology and its impact on society. One recent critical and ongoing example involves discussions around the CHIPS and Science Act, a legislative effort to invest in the semiconductor industry and related technologies.

Signed into law in August 2022, the CHIPS and Science Act was formed to bolster U.S. competitiveness and innovation in the field of semiconductors and other key emerging technologies, like quantum and artificial intelligence, but also climate, the bioeconomy and more.

To that end, Duke advocates for comprehensive support, which involves advocacy in the research and development of chip technology in the U.S. to funding educational programs that train the next generation of chip designers.

The university has several training programs funded by the federal government aimed toward filling emerging educational needs, and the CHIPS act could provide another opportunity to grow into this essential role.

Duke in DC office.
Groups meet in the Duke in DC office for briefings and other business.

“CHIPS is looking at many areas including onshoring semiconductor manufacturing—even if we build new chip fabs, there remains the big question of who is going to work in these plants? Also, what cutting-edge chip technologies are available for computing to keep pace with Moore’s Law?” asked Lynch. “From educational programs to train future chip designers to highly skilled technicians to work in these plants, universities must show legislators how they can help build tomorrow’s critical workforce in a comprehensive manner.”

Another dimension of CHIPS that Duke is advocating for is quantum computing. With the potential ability to simulate quantum effects and solve problems too complex for traditional computers, the technology has the potential to revolutionize many critical fields ranging from materials science to cybersecurity. Duke has made significant investments in this space over the past several years, which highlight the transformative nature of legislative support and how far reaching the conversations in D.C. actually are when an institution’s ability to innovate and compete are amplified.

According to the Duke Quantum Center (DQC), its members have helped bring in over $170 million in funding and performed over $100 million in government contracts since 2007. Over the last decade, the center has contributed to some of the most impactful collaborations and research studies in the field of quantum computing. For instance, in 2015 the DQC designed and built the first fully connected and reconfigurable universal quantum computer, and another in 2017 before releasing it in 2019. According to the DQC, it was the most powerful quantum computer on Earth “with up to 32 fully connected qubits and better than 99 percent fidelity on gates.” The amplification power can also be seen through the lens of the launch of IonQ, the first pure-play quantum computing company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange that was valued at $3 billion as of September 2023.

Collaboration is crucial to Duke’s success in engaging with policymakers as well. Their representatives work closely with experts who possess in-depth knowledge of legislative processes and ongoing discussions. This collaboration aids in crafting effective talking points and aligning priorities with legislative opportunities.

“We work to bring up experts, not just from Duke Engineering, but from an interdisciplinary group of schools, often to talk about an issue from multiple perspectives,” said Jeff Harris, Duke in DC’s director. “That allows us to come to singular topics from different disciplines, which makes Duke’s expertise more valuable for policymakers and their staff.”

Duke’s approach to engaging with lawmakers is not solely about academia; it’s also about civic duty. As citizens, the university believes academic leaders have the responsibility to contribute to informed policy decisions. Their involvement goes beyond advocating for their institutions—it extends to supporting policies that foster societal progress.

Both Lynch and Harris highlight the importance of the flexibility of researchers and academics to be able to engage in a number of different talking points when participating in these influential spaces.

“We’re lucky we have one of the best government affairs teams here at Duke. They really keep their finger on the pulse with Congress,” said Lynch. “They know what all the legislative actions are no matter their state of play—what’s in play and what’s going to be in play. They are also helpful toward telling us what might not get through even if headlines suggest otherwise. This insight is invaluable as we think strategically about how Duke can meaningfully contribute to national priorities in all relevant venues.”

The practice of communicating with lawmakers is not limited to a select group of faculty members or administrators. It’s an inclusive effort that seeks to involve a diverse range of voices, perspectives and institutions. By doing so, stakeholders can offer a comprehensive understanding of complex issues and are able to contribute to evidence-based policy decisions.

Speaking the Same Language as Policymakers

Another example of Duke’s engagement strategy is faculty involvement in briefings hosted by federal agencies, like the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other groups like professional and scientific societies. These briefings provide an additional platform for Duke experts to share their insights with policymakers and stakeholders on topics like climate finance and research.

Melissa Vetterkind, assistant vice president in Duke’s Office of Government Relations, pointed to the importance of these engagements, emphasizing how they allow Duke’s experts to connect with policymakers and offer valuable research-backed insights on critical issues.

“Although we develop a number of Duke-sponsored engagement opportunities for the Duke community, it’s wonderful when Duke faculty are handpicked by outside groups to share their expertise with a congressional or federal audience. We play a supporting role in these situations to help amplify the event and messages with Duke’s key constituency in Washington,” said Vetterkind.

Earlier this year, April Brown, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke, attended an NSF briefing that focused on showing Congress the strides that NSF has made in advanced manufacturing. Several principal investigators were invited to speak in front of a delegation, with each member representing different areas of research funded by NSF.

Brown’s area of expertise lies in semiconductor materials and device synthesis and manufacturing. Recently her focus has shifted to quantum devices underlying quantum information applications. This covers areas such as quantum sensing and quantum information technology. During the briefing, each participant, including Brown, had the opportunity to discuss their work for a brief period. Following this, a breakout session was organized, featuring various exhibits, and as part of Brown’s presentation, they prepared short one-page descriptions outlining the core aspects of their research.

“There was a lot of interest from congressional staff people who were very enthusiastic and put forward a lot of good questions during the briefing,” said Brown. “This was also during the time of the CHIPS Act, although it hadn’t been funded yet, and it was important that we shared our thoughts on why it was necessary to fund it.”

NSF briefings allow researchers and academics to showcase crucial findings that need to get to the policymakers in charge of bills like the CHIPS Act, and Brown and her team highlight the importance of being in the same room.

The exterior views of the Lincoln Memorial.

Maintaining a Strong Foundation

When not taking part in events planned by federal officials, the process of keeping Duke’s experts connected to policymakers involves leveraging a network of relationships and contacts. Strong ties to expert faculty, researchers and alumni working on Capitol Hill provide a foundation for reaching out and collaborating on various initiatives no matter where they’re located.

“D.C. is busy, and people have plenty of invitations to professional events and networking,” said Harris. “It takes staying in touch and thoughtfully designed programs to make it worth someone’s time.”From social promotion to direct emails, preparing for an event and encouraging attendees to participate hinges on the relationship building that Duke in DC and the Office of Government Relations staff help maintain. Keeping stock of these strong ties also allows participants to take on leadership roles with important figures in the industry.

“While we might meet our delegates with a mindset of representing our schools and professions, we also meet them as citizens.” said Lynch. “At a personal level, I want to be engaged in the democratic process and be aware of what’s going on as a citizen. That in turn allows me to then be a better leader attuned to how our profession can lean in to ensure our democratic institutions can better meet the needs of our communities.”

“While we might meet our delegates with a mindset of representing our schools and professions, we also meet them as citizens. At a personal level, I want to be engaged in the democratic process and be aware of what’s going on as a citizen. That in turn allows me to then be a better leader attuned to how our profession can lean in to ensure our democratic institutions can better meet the needs of our communities.”

Vinik Dean of Engineering
Duke in DC

Key Takeaways

  • Advocate as a citizen of your school’s hometown, not just on behalf of your own individual university, prioritizing meetings with local representatives.
  • Coordinate with representatives of other schools and universities in your region to strengthen your dialogue.
  • Amplify your advocation by focusing on policy and legislation that aligns with your school’s current and planned research strengths.
  • Include visits and messages from faculty and staff in a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives.
  • Prepare short one-page descriptions to reinforce the core aspects of complex research topics.
  • Maintain strong ties with expert faculty, researchers and alumni working on Capitol Hill to provide a foundation for reaching out and collaborating.
  • Invest in a large physical space in the heart of D.C. to enhance your presence by offering opportunities to host seminars, alumni events and academic conferences.

Duke’s Pennsylvania Avenue Address

The original Duke in DC office space had five offices and a classroom, encompassing a size that was about a third of the size of the current space. That new office space opened in February 2017 and has about two dozen offices and another two dozen workstations for full-time staff in the region, alongside multiple meeting/seminar rooms, a conference center, a video studio and swing office space available to Duke faculty and staff.

The new space has allowed for a wide variety of programs to be hosted on site, such as professional seminars, alumni events and academic conferences. The office (along with its spectacular rooftop view, seen here) can host everything from an individual faculty member wanting some space to work while in town to the University Board of Trustees, which it hosted in 2017.

The rooftop of the Duke in DC building provides excellent views of the Washington DC skyline and the Washington Monument.

Read More Stories

Explore additional stories in this issue of I/O Magazine.