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CSF Report

Report from D.C.

by Rafael Sagarin, 2002-2003 GSA Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 13, no. 3 (March 2003)

Washington, D.C., is a long way from the coast of Baja California, where I've done much of my fieldwork. I'm sure any earth scientist who has spent considerable time in the field can appreciate the culture shock. Long drives through wide-open landscapes and rugged back roads have been replaced by packed subway cars and icy sidewalks. Campfires and beer after a day of fieldwork have been replaced by the staid Washington tradition of happy hours filled with gossiping lawyers, lobbyists, and congressional staff members. Dusty T-shirts and boots replaced by suits.

To be fair, I knew what I was getting into. I had always been interested in politics, and having done research on the politically controversial field of climate change made me especially eager to understand how science gets incorporated into policy in Washington. The Congressional Science Fellowship Program, jointly sponsored by GSA and the U.S. Geological Survey, sends scientists from all stages in their careers to Washington, not as lobbyists or activists, but as students of the political process.

Once I got to D.C. in September, I met up with about 100 other fellows sponsored by various societies for a three-week orientation run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I was amazed at the diversity of fields represented-geologists, biologists, chemists, psychologists, even veterinarians. For the 30 congressional fellows, our work was just beginning, as we spent the three weeks after orientation walking the halls of Congress passing out resumes to the offices of senators and congressmen and constantly leaving messages for staff members. Eventually, we did get some of our calls returned and everyone found an office in which to spend the year.

I chose to work for Hilda Solis, a freshman Democratic representative from East Los Angeles. I really liked her staff and the idea of helping out a person just getting started in her national political career. While her main issues of concern were not necessarily those that I had worked on as a scientist, I soon learned that issues are much more transient on Capitol Hill than in academic science. The portfolio of scientific projects I've worked on evolved over eight years or more. Yet within a few hours of starting my present position as a science advisor for the congresswoman, I was given a portfolio of issues that includes climate change, fisheries, forest fires, environmental justice, incentives for environmental businesses, Clean Water Act, racism in the census, and anything else I would like to pursue in my free time. Issues come up on Capitol Hill rapidly and opportunities must be seized to deal with them before they pass.

For example, I recently attended the Planning Workshop for Scientists and Stakeholders for the President's Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). More than 1,500 scientists, environmentalists, and government employees attended this meeting, which was billed as an opportunity to be briefed about and comment on the draft of the CCSP. Unfortunately, I was surprised to find that few of the congressional staff members I had come to know were in attendance during the three-day meeting, even though there are several areas where congressional action could greatly improve the scientific plan.

For example, the 2003 budget for the entire program of research on climate change is less than $40 million (less than 2%) greater than the 1996 budget, despite the fact that the CCSP calls for massive new research programs and new organizational structures. Additionally, there is little emphasis on basic monitoring programs to study the effects of climate change on natural systems. Finally, there is a large emphasis on developing future technologies to sequester greenhouse gases, rather than on applying currently available solutions and strategies to mitigate against climate change today.

In all of these issues there are political actions and biases underlying the scientific actions proposed. Yet I believe the lack of congressional involvement in this process is due to the fact that the CCSP has been promoted as a scientific, rather than political, response to climate change, and congressional staff members are reluctant to get involved in what they perceive as a purely scientific issue. As a science fellow, I am trying to bridge this gap on this issue by preparing comments on the draft CCSP and passing them around to various congressional offices. My goal is to find a group of congress members who would be willing to publicly comment on the failings of the draft CCSP and work to improve its budget for the long term.

Fortunately, I have a growing number of allies on Capitol Hill who are willing to take the leap between policy and science. The Washington world retains science fellows at an alarming rate. Almost every day I run into a fellow or a former fellow, some from many years back. They are in practically every branch of government. They are often my best source of information and analysis. And while next year might find me back on the shores of Baja, for now I am really enjoying the opportunity to get a firsthand look at the policy process and I hope to add a small contribution to the growing role of earth scientists in policy making.

This manuscript is submitted for publication by Rafael Sagarin, 2002-2003 GSA-U.S. Geological Survey Congressional Science Fellow, with the understanding that the U.S. government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for governmental use. The one-year fellowship is supported by GSA and by the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, under Assistance Award No. 02HQGR0141. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. government. Rafael Sagarin can be reached at rafe.sagarin@mail.house.gov.