Rep. Giffords made tech her top issue

Gabrielle Giffords, an inquisitive mind, tapped expertise and talent to form her policy positions

WASHINGTON -- Since her election to Congress in 2007, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has quickly established herself as an emerging leader on tech issues, and she led by example.

Giffords installed nine solar panels on the roof of her Tucson home and detailed the cost ($12,500 for equipment and installation) and payback period (7.4 years), after federal and state tax rebates, which she also fought for.

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has been seen as an emerging leader on tech issues in Congress. (Photo by: Ho New / Reuters)

The system, installed one year ago this month, was expected to cut her home energy bills by half.

In Congress, Giffords was appointed to the Committee on Science and Technology, where she has pushed hard for funding increases in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and for research funding -- especially research into solar power.

She had just been sworn in for a third term when she was shot and critically injured on Saturday in an attack that killed six other people.

People who know Giffords describe her as someone with a deep interest in technology and who actively reaches out to scientists and business leaders to learn as much she can.

"I think she has a very strong command of whatever subject that she decides she is going to care about," said Steven Zylstra, president and CEO Arizona Technology Council, an industry group.

"She is a very smart and capable woman, and she digs in wherever she decides to get involved with something," Zylstra said.

"My passion is solar energy," said Giffords in a 2008 technology forum at Pima Community College in Tucson, sponsored by the Arizona Technology Council, which archived the video. Giffords said her vision is to turn Arizona into solar industry's Silicon Valley, or as she put it, "Solarcon Valley."

Pima was the same school that Jared Loughner, who has been charged in Saturday's shooting that killed six people and injured 14 including Giffords, later attended before he was suspended in September.

Among those who know Giffords and call her a friend, is James Gentile, president of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. He said Giffords "went into congress with a kind of deeper understanding, I think, of how science and technology relates to jobs."

"She has come very, very far in her understanding of the solar industry," said Gentile, who said that among the things that have impressed him with Giffords was her decision to hire several Ph.D.-holding staff members to help her on policy. "I think she's smart enough to know what she doesn't know."

The Tucson-based organization, which dates from 1912, uses a $200 million endowment to help promising researchers get established. About 40 Nobel Prize laureates also were also helped through the fund early in the careers, Gentile said.

Giffords has also taken on controversial issues. Shortly after Microsoft's Bill Gates testified in 2008 before the science committee and spoke about the need to raise the H-1B cap, Giffords introduced legislation to make the happen.

Her bill would have raised the cap from 65,000 a year to 130,000 a year, with provisions to go above that. It would also remove any cap for foreign graduate students at U.S. universities.

There is now a 20,000-a-year cap on visas for graduate students in all fields. The bill was never adopted.

Giffords was also critical of trade issues, advocating for "free and fair trade," and believes trading partners have to meet certain environmental and labor standards. She was particularly opposed to entering in a trade agreement with Colombia because, she said, "they are murdering their labor leaders."

Giffords was also chairman of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics in her last term. Her husband is NASA Shuttle commander Mark Kelly.

Many of the bills that Giffords was behind sought additional money to advance research and commercial development.

The Solar Energy Industries Association said Giffords "has constantly positioned herself as one of the go-to champions for solar" in the House.

She supported such things as continuation of the solar investment tax credit, and introduced the Solar Technology Roadmap Act that dedicated over $2 billion for solar research. It was approved in the House but didn't' get Senate action.

Late last month, a bill she co-sponsored, the reauthorization of the Competes Act, was signed by the president. This bill sets aside money for basic research funding as well as science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

Among the things it seeks to accomplish is to increase the number of people who can teach advanced-placement programs. "Preparing students in Arizona and across the nation for the 21st century means providing them with the best education possible in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," Giffords said in a statement after the law was signed.

"These fields will shape our future and the investments we make in advancing them today will pay tremendous dividends tomorrow," Giffords said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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