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Mar. 13, 2014 12:30 pm

Chaka Fattah is the only U.S. congressman with Google Glass [Q&A]

The Overbrook High School graduate is also the lead Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science. We caught up with him to hear about what he calls "the most important mystery on Earth."

Photo courtesy of Rep. Fattah's office.

Congressman Chaka Fattah got Google Glass to let people see through his eyes.

Fattah, who’s represented the state’s 2nd Congressional District (much of which covers parts of West Philadelphia, including University City) since 1995, uses the wearable technology during major speeches he gives at neuroscience and technology conferences. His office has produced several videos with the technology, offering a glimpse into what it’s like for Fattah when he addresses audiences.

Watch some of them below.

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The Overbrook High School graduate is also the lead Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science. We caught up with him to hear about what he calls “the most important mystery on Earth,” his thoughts on the NSA PRISM scandal and (yeah, we had to ask) what his favorite app is.

Tell us about your neuroscience efforts.

I created a government-wide collaboration [Interagency Working Group on Neuroscience (IWGN)] focused on neuroscience, involving all federal agencies. Then we added a pharmaceutical industry collaboration to increase private sector investment in brain research.

One of the things I’ve been doing over the last year is working to connect up U.S efforts with international efforts. I’ll be speaking at the 11th Annual World Congress of the Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics (SBMT) in Sydney, Australia, and I’ve spoken at other conferences like Healthy Brain, Healthy Europe in Ireland [in May 2013].

We created a high priority research effort, co-chaired by the National Science Foundation, Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs — everyone in government who were scientists that have done work connected to neuroscience.

We want to develop a set of priorities for the federal government that we can make disruptive progress in terms of understanding how the human brain works, how to go about treating and curing the 500+ diseases of the brain, like Alzheimers. We’ve not made real progress in figuring out how these diseases come about and how to treat them.

On Feb. 27, we’re holding a hearing where the White House Office of Science will talk in great detail about the recommendations of this collaboration. We’re focused on how to get better diagnostic tools, better imaging tools in an effort to map the human brain.

We’re going to make a big investment in neuroscience. The EU put in billion and a half dollars and we’re going to put in something similar. This is the most important mystery on earth.

Do you think the National Science Foundation is funded enough?

No. My friend Kevin Brown is the Chief Procurement Officer for Dell and he was based in Singapore. We were talking about this. Singapore is a much smaller country. They have put $7 billion into their National Science Foundation. Our nation struggles to appropriate $7 billion. We argue about whether we can come up with that for our NSF even though we are the wealthiest country in the world.

So it’s our commitment to basic science that has been what’s created the country’s ability to have such a great economic engine. Innovation and science — that’s really what’s moved America forward.

Our commitment has been less than what we want it to be. We’ve been fighting for more investment in NSF. We’ve been successful in avoiding major cuts, but we’re not necessarily making new investments.

I am pleased that in this year’s appropriations, we were able to get additional dollars for the foundation — $13 million for some of the work about neuroscience, but there’s so much more to do.

With regards to tech transfer, I introduced legislation that had language that would push for tech transfer but require, when licenses and agreements are struck, that manufacturing take place in U.S. The president signed [that bill] into law. Promoting American manufacturing is one of my key priorities.

Have you followed Philadelphia’s open data movement at all? What are your thoughts on releasing government data?

I can’t say that I have, but it’s great to hear it’s having an effect locally. I do think it’s important to release federal data. I do think that when it comes to data that helps the country in terms of economic competition, we have to think through some of these issues, as well as defense issues. There’s the possibility of the transfer of that data into the wrong hands. We’d have to think through that.

We know you were at Science Leadership Academy for its launch as a Dell Center for Excellence. Talk to us about your STEM initiatives.

I’ve introduced the America’s FOCUS Act, which would provide a very substantial increase in funding for STEM education. Only four percent of the country’s workforce are scientists or engineers, and they’ll be retiring over the next 10 years. It’s critically important that we get young people interested in STEM.

I put together a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of America and FIRST Robotics that matched mentors from FIRST to students with BCGA. This is the way we’ve got to get young people engaged. Rather than talk about it we’ve got to show them the fun of science.

It’s an exciting time. I was on the mission control floor when the Mars Rover landed.

What do you think of the NSA PRISM scandal?

This is a general matter — it’s not just the NSA. We can see that cybersecurity is a gigantic issue, whether its Target or Neiman Marcus.

Significant parts of our lives are played out online that exposes people in ways that you really couldn’t have comprehended years ago. You have bad actors who are trying to get information. You also have actors who have public responsibilities, like law enforcement and the NSA.

But we also have a set of rules. We have a Constitution that protects people in terms of privacy issues. The government has to act within the Constitution.

I’m not a knee-jerk kind of person. I voted against the Patriot Act.

I think we can overreach. I think we can also overreach on the other side, where there’s no concern about activities that could be dangerous. There’s a set of reforms that are being pushed forward, and I hope that all of us will act responsibly, finding where that balance might be between people having privacy and also letting the government doing what it needs to do.

So, are you an iPhone guy? Or Android?

I’m an iPhone guy, but I’m a [Google] Glass Explorer.

As a member of Congress, I’m the first to have my own app. I am also more traditional so I have a public affairs TV show, where I talk about neuroscience, my work on advanced manufacturing, youth mentoring and STEM education. So I’m a techie and a traditional guy.

Other than your own app, what’s your favorite?

I’m addicted to golf, so I use the Golf Channel app. I don’t use any productivity tools, but my staff probably does.

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Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes began as lead reporter at Technically Philly in July 2012. Previously, she was a city services beat reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, as part of a project called “It’s Our Money.” She is learning to drive, learning to bike (in the city) but is an expert at taking SEPTA. She grew up in North Jersey and Manila, Philippines but she left the tropics for Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in linguistics. She now lives in West Philly.

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