SDBN hosted Democratic Congressman Scott Peters at Green Flash Brewery Monday September 22nd, 2014. A diverse audience of scientists from industry and academia turned out to hear Peters’ vision of what Washington DC can learn from San Diego’s knowledge-based economy. A native San Diegan, who practiced environmental law for fifteen years before turning to politics, Peters is enthusiastic about the innovation and productivity of local companies. He contrasted the dynamic, problem-solving way of doing business in San Diego with the hierarchical, dysfunctional power structure in DC. His frustration with the failure of Congress to achieve anything in recent years led him to run successfully for his seat in the 52nd District. He is defending that seat in November against Republican Carl DeMaio.
Professor Evan Snyder from the Sanford-Burnham Research Institute opened the debate by stressing the importance of medical research to the wider economy, and making a point about the benefits: “If you think medical research is expensive, try disease.” Snyder said that our current knowledge is built on spectacular advances made a generation ago, and questioned what legacy we would leave in thirty years if we allowed funding to slip now.
Peters picked up on the theme of NIH funding, citing the drop in R01 grant funding rates and pointing out that competitor countries are becoming more attractive for young scientists. He is an advocate for science in the House, and sits on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. He is also the co-chair of the Congressional Algae Caucus (“Don’t like my algae jokes? They grow on you.”) and is enthusiastic about alternative energy sources. He considers himself a “deficit hawk” and is generally on the right wing of his party, supporting tax reform and reducing regulation, even to the point of voting against a medical device tax that is part of the funding for the Affordable Care Act. But he was clear that he believed in investing in long-term funding, rather than being subject to “the tyranny of today’s money” – short-term financial thinking. He said that he was trying to build bridges with the Republican Party; at least, the part of it who were willing to engage. He seemed optimistic that some of the most recently-elected representatives from both parties were more interested in making progress than blocking it.
“Washington DC,” Peters said, “is the place where innovation goes and gets confused.” He thinks that the nation needs to embrace the opportunities that science and technology offer, while supporting the research that drives progress. To that end he urged the audience to “be the expert witness in your communities”: explain why the science that we’re doing is important, and why the government should fund it. And that’s something that goes beyond party politics and is something we can all aspire to.