Benjamin Franta, a graduate student in applied physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in an event called Congressional Visits Day, which aims to raise the visibility of science, engineering, and technology in government and society. Sponsored by SPIE, he was there to advocate for federal support of research in optics and photonics. A member of Prof. Eric Mazur’s laboratory group at Harvard SEAS, Franta works to develop new materials for solar cells and other energy technologies. He is also a proponent of policies to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

In this Q&A, he describes his experience in Washington, his research here on campus, and why it is important for scientists and engineers to engage in public policy debates.

What inspired you to take part in Congressional Visits Day?

I went with an organization called SPIE, which is an international organization that promotes research and commercialization of technologies that use light. That’s a really wide array of technologies, from telecommunications to energy applications, to biomedical devices, to security and national defense technologies. Photonics is a huge part of the economy. A report recently came out, written by the National Research Council of the National Academies, called Optics and Photonics: Essential Technologies for Our Nation, and it said that in 2010, 10 percent of all public company revenues came from companies working in optics and photonics. That’s huge. That report made a number of recommendations, and one of them was for the federal government to work with academia and industry on a National Photonics Initiative that would coordinate the photonics research and development and industry development across various parties in the United States and make U.S. industries in this area more competitive at the global scale.

We were bringing this report and the idea of a National Photonics Initiative to the attention of representatives and senators. We said, this is going to be on the agenda, you’re going to hear about this—and we explained what it was, because a lot of Congress people, and a lot of scientists for that matter, don’t have great familiarity with what the word photonics even means.

What does your own research involve?

I’m working on developing a new technology that could lower the cost of photovoltaic solar energy. We’re trying to create a silicon-based technology that operates in a similar way to current technology but is able to absorb a wider spectrum of light from the sun. This material can absorb lower energies of light that are invisible to people, in the infrared, and then convert that to electricity, so hopefully we get a bit of an efficiency boost. You can try to reduce the cost of the materials—the silicon, the glass over the top, the wiring, the aluminum frame—but the most important, direct way of lowering the cost of solar energy is by increasing the efficiency, because then you need less of everything.

When you met with leaders in Washington, were they receptive to what you wanted to say about photonics?

It actually varied a lot. Some Congress people will have staffers who are experts in a particular area, and it might have to do with what issues are big in their state. Some offices may not have a staffer who’s a science and technology expert. You might talk to an agriculture expert instead. In some offices, you walk in and say, ‘I’m a scientist, I’m here to talk about funding for science,’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s great. We really support that.’ And it was clear that they were already thinking the same way.

I had nine meetings that day, and the first meeting felt very different from the last one, because I had never done this before. I went into the first one thinking, ‘Oh, I hope this goes well. I hope they support this.’ But of course the decision isn’t going to be made in this 20-minute meeting. You’re putting the issue on their radar, and if they’re interested in this in the future, you can build a relationship with them.

It was very different from what I expected. In the same way that being a scientist is very different from what most other people imagine it is, government operates in a way that’s different from what people might expect just by watching the news.

How easy is it to make your voice heard in Washington?

It's a more straightforward process than you might think. The buildings are totally open to the public. The halls are lined with offices, and their doors are mostly open—it’s best to make an appointment, which we did—so you can walk in and say, this is who I am, I’m from your district, and I’d like to talk to someone about this issue, x, y, or z. And then you’ll be handled by a staffer.

Congress people have teams that work with them to gather data and facts, to advise them on how they should vote on various issues, and to do writing for them. On TV, we just see senators and representatives in the chambers, voting one way or another, and we often think they’re just looking inside themselves or to their party to determine their position and their vote. But there’s a huge apparatus behind the entire thing.

Staffers have to become well versed in the issues as quickly as they can to advise their boss in an informed way, and a lot of that happens through consulting with experts and talking to constituents. If you go in there and talk to a staffer, even though you’re not talking directly to the senator or representative, you can really make a big difference. And you can also be a resource for them in the future.

When this National Photonics Initiative comes up in Congress, these staffers that we talked to can say, ‘Okay, who did I talk to? Who are the experts in this field? What is photonics, and what technologies use it? How big is it in our economy, and what are its prospects for the future?’ And they'll have our contact information.

Has your experience with public policy changed the way you view your research?

Many scientists aren’t activists by nature. We often have a worldview formed around the idea that things are technologically determined—that we develop a particular technology and then it changes the world, instead of the world changing and then promoting the development of a certain technology. Grassroots organizing (for example, my involvement with the fossil fuel divestment campaign) has been really interesting and educational, and it’s been an eye-opening experience as to how political change actually happens and the sorts of negotiation and coalition building that people have to do to make change.

How can other students connect with the broader community of scientists and engineers?

Join professional organizations. I attend a lot of conferences that are put together by SPIE; there are a few on the West Coast that I go to every year that have a strong focus on the use of lasers in manufacturing and creating new types of materials—and specifically solar cells, which is what I work on. I’ve also been involved in starting a student chapter here at Harvard for SPIE. They sponsor students to go down to Washington, and they even have a program for people who have already earned their Ph.D. to become Congressional staffers for a year. It brings science into politics a little bit more, and helps scientists to understand the political process better, too.

To learn more about research in optics and photonics at Harvard SEAS, read the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of our Topics newsletter: “Dreaming in Color: Nanophotonics and the Future of Tech.”