As a political naif who considers himself an independent, computer scientist Chad Jenkins may have seemed out of place giving a pep talk to a group of Republican lawmakers. But when the GOP leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives invited Jenkins to speak at their annual retreat this week, the associate professor at Brown University jumped at the chance.
His TED-style talk on Wednesday night made two points. On the surface, it demonstrated how his research on personal robots has helped Henry Evans, a mute quadriplegic, reconnect with the world. But he says his last slide, which thanked NASA, the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Education for supporting his research, was intended to convey a second, more subtle message: Federal support for basic academic research benefits society.
Jenkins certainly accomplished his first goal. “It was fascinating. Everyone was very impressed with Chad and Henry,” says Nate Hodson, an aide to Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), who organized the retreat as chair of the Republican Conference.
Henry Evans was a 40-year-old chief financial officer in Silicon Valley when he suffered a devastating stroke in 2002. In the past year, Jenkins and his team have trained Evans to use his head movements to direct a quadrotor drone around his home in northern California—or inside a hotel on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where the lawmakers had gathered for a 3-day meeting that ended today. A PR2 robot that Jenkins and others have programmed also allows Evans to do everyday tasks like opening the refrigerator door and shaving himself.
Evans’s spirit and resilience appealed to Rodgers, who had told her staff to be on the lookout for speakers who challenge the status quo and demonstrate what’s possible. And Evans’s nonprofit Robots for Humanity—described in a TED talk he and Jenkins gave last fall—seemed like the perfect vehicle for that message. “She wanted members to think about policies that could have the same impact on people that Robots for Humanity is having on the lives of individuals,” Hodson says. It was a busy week for the fifth-term legislator: On Tuesday, Rodgers gave the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
Jenkins was the only academic on the program. He shared the stage with Simon Sinek, an advertising executive whose 2009 book on leadership, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, has made him a popular motivational speaker. The next morning, GOP legislators heard from online education guru Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, before plunging into a substantive agenda that covered such thorny topics as immigration, energy, health care, and deficit reduction.
Jenkins says he was mobbed after his talk, with members eager to know more about Evans’s daily life and how the technology works. His portion of the retreat was a social event, Jenkins emphasized, and most of his interactions were a blur. But he hopes the fistful of business cards he collected will eventually translate into new opportunities to help groups that could benefit from adaptive technologies, from wounded veterans to the elderly.
He also thinks that he made some progress on reminding lawmakers of the value of federal spending on research. “We were guests, so we didn’t want to agitate them,” Jenkins says. “Henry is an amazing story of someone whose life has been turned around through investments in basic research. And when you see an academic who’s made a positive effect on his life, I don’t think you have to say it. They were looking for ideas that sounded good, and you have to assume that they can connect the dots.”
A taste of Washington politics has left the 40-year-old researcher open to the idea of additional appearances on the national stage. And one legislator has already asked if Evans would be interested in appearing as his guest at next year’s State of the Union address. But in response to a question from ScienceInsider, Jenkins drew the line at overt political activity.
“Testify before Congress? I could do that,” he says. “But if they invited Henry and me to the Republican National Convention, I’d have to think real hard about that. Being on national TV in a highly partisan atmosphere is different than talking about your research. It would also be pretty stressful.”