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Geologist on a Soapbox

by Melody Brown Burkins, GSA Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 10, no. 3 (March 2000)

My interest in the role of the geosciences in public policy decision-making began early in graduate school at Dartmouth College and grew with every instance in which I noticed how easily my studies dovetailed with a politically charged issue. As I studied hydrogeology and ore exploration, I found that issues of natural resource availability, water quality, and land use jumped at me from the pages of popular magazines. When I moved to studies of Antarctic soils, I found myself poring over articles citing Antarctic biota declines as harbingers of climate change and papers about Antarctic tourism impinging on sensitive lands.

The dynamics, trends, and sustainability of human interactions with natural earth processes are more and more the topic of popular public debate. Global climate change, air and water quality, the extraction of resources on public lands, the teaching of evolution-these are only a few of the politically charged issues facing lawmakers today. As geoscientists, we are in a unique position to inform these debates with a wealth of earth systems knowledge. And, I would argue, we have a responsibility to do so.

Yet communicating scientific evidence or ideas to policy-makers most effectively, especially to lawmakers on "the Hill," is not straightforward for scientists. Lawmaking and science are not quite oil and water, but the two cultures do not blend easily. Policy-making is about rapid, timely decisions made in the face of constantly inadequate information. Science is about tentative conclusions made only after thorough examination of well-researched data. Policy-makers shun uncertainty. Scientists embrace it as their life's work. Obstacles to communication are simply inherent to the difference in thinking by both cultures. I have now seen many legislators learning to value, and understand, the world of science. Scientists should be encouraged to do the same.

The need for better science and policy communication is why the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) created the Congressional Science and Technology Fellows program more than 25 years ago. Representing scientific fields from food safety to civil engineering, 31 of us now roam the halls of Congress. As this year's GSA-USGS Fellow, I have the privilege of working in the office of Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat—Vermont), a legislator I have long admired for his educated and reasoned positions on energy and environment issues. I also have the privilege of seeing how important the flow of good, sound science into policy-making can be—there are few lawmakers on the Hill who do not crave good scientific information to help them make decisions.


One of the best books I have seen summarizing what I have begun to learn in the past three months in Washington is William G. Wells's Working with Congress: A Practical Guide for Scientists and Engineers (AAAS, 1996, second edition). In his book, Wells emphasizes that Cardinal Rule Number One for effective communication with legislators is to "convey that you understand something about Congress."

This advice comes before all other rules, even those detailing how to best present scientific facts, for good reason. You would not think much of a job candidate who, no matter his qualifications, arrived for an interview and did not show even the most basic understanding of the staff assignments, schedule demands, and general goals of your particular program. It would show a lack of respect for you, your time, and your profession. Just like academia or industry, Congress is a culture with special relationships, priorities, and procedures that should be learned, and respected, by those who want meaningful, constructive communication.

What should you know about Congress? Lawmakers do not expect scientists to know the details, but do expect some understanding of their culture. Hundreds of books and essays have been written about this, but two essential tenets of congressional culture bear repeating: (1) relationships count, and (2) there is never enough time.

There is a reason that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of interest groups have offices in or near Washington, D.C. Forging a strong relationship with legislators and their staffs means engendering trust and recognition through repeated, positive interactions. As reported in Wells's book, the late Congressman George E. Brown of California always remembered a veterinarian from his state who took time to visit him. Wells quotes Representative Brown as saying, "Now there are not many bills that come through Congress that involve a veterinary issue. But when such an issue or question does come up ... I remember him."

The most effective communication with Congress also respects the extraordinary time constraints all legislators and staff live with each day. Their time is in demand by hundreds of issues at once, from international crises to a constituent's dispute with town hall. I am still in awe of the organization and dedication this takes of congressional staff—eleven-hour work days are expected and, when Congress is in session, 15 and 20 hour days are not uncommon.

The best information is transferred to Congress clearly and concisely, with scientific evidence separated from personal opinion, and a recognition of legislators' need to be sensitive to issues beyond scientific evidence. I personally have a new-found respect for a half-page, bullet-list fact sheet that deftly summarizes all scientific, social, political, and economic implications (pro and con) of an issue. These may seem impossible in my former world of academia, but in a time-stressed culture where information leads to public law, they are true art as well as extremely valuable currency.


Effective communication also means understanding the role of science in public policy debates. Scientific evidence, no matter how broadly accepted in the scientific community, is still only one small piece of a complex and multidimensional decision-making puzzle. Legislators must deal with constituent needs, commerce needs, national and international needs, economic implications, and social trends.

Scientists are welcome to present their facts to Congress without framing them in terms of these other issues; this is safer and keeps scientists from appearing partisan. However, scientists should bear in mind that someone in Congress, and probably not a scientist, will still have to frame the issue—and perhaps not in the way the scientist intended—in order to judge its value in the lawmaking process. In scientific journals and professional articles, experiment and data define the context of the argument. In public policy, scientific evidence is a side issue, with varying degrees of importance, within the larger framework of a legislative agenda.

I first learned this lesson, strangely enough, about 16,000 miles from Washington, D.C. It was January of 1998 when my field team and I learned that six United States senators would be visiting Antarctica on a fact-finding mission about polar research. We knew to present our science in general terms, with no jargon, and to make two or three points clearly and concisely. Yet, after we had met the senators and given well-rehearsed presentations on the science of frozen soils, Antarctic biota, and glacial dynamics, the senators wasted little time getting to their point. How did we justify our science budget? How did the science provide tangible and otherwise economic benefits?

It was only with the gentle urging of adept National Science Foundation administrators who hosted the visit that we Antarctic scientists began to get it. Our grants, we explained to the senators, were attained only after rigorous competition among peers—a checks-and-balances system understood and respected by federal legislators. Economic and social benefits ranged from a better understanding of climate change trends (potentially helping end uncertainties in regulatory proposals) to valuable science education programs that had stemmed from the research.

We later heard that the senators had given glowing reviews of the visit and we heaved a collective sigh of relief: One visitor had been Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee (ultimate funder of all government programs) and a potential critic of the amount of money moving to southern, rather than northern, polar regions. Phew.


Finally, I think it is important to reiterate why geoscientists should concern themselves with the multitude of social, political, and legislative processes that create public policy. It takes time and may do little to advance a professional career. So why should we care?

The primary reason: It is our responsibility as educated citizens. Few geoscientists can say that they have been educated, trained, or employed in this country without some level of public funding, be it via school tax dollars or federal research grants. Put bluntly, I believe we owe something to all of those who have allowed us to pursue our love of science, including public taxpayers. We tabulate grant expenditures for government agencies. We write numerous journal articles for professional colleagues. We may even teach students and graduate students. Yet all of this activity only indirectly educates our communities and government, if at all.

Active citizenship does not have to have a political agenda: Two of the most valuable contributions geoscientists can make to public policy debates are utterly nonpartisan. First, geoscientists can contribute their unparalleled knowledge of fundamental earth processes. Geoscientists, and geoscience organizations, must make themselves visible, accessible, and valuable to legislators whenever earth science-based issues are publicly debated. Second, geoscientists can contribute their voices, strongly urging our representatives to support geoscience-related research and education programs. Even in these years of putative budget surplus, the annual competition for appropriations dollars is intense. Why should Congress, through its funding for the National Science Foundation, support research and education programs in the geosciences? Geoscientists should always be prepared with a ready answer (half-page, bullet-list ...).

This leads to a final statement on "why get involved?" If trained geoscientists do not take the responsibility to educate their communities and Congress about Earth system dynamics and the importance of the geosciences, who will? A lack of geoscience voices in our government may or may not bother your sense of scientific responsibility. But if you do believe that your years of education, training, and expertise may better inform public debates or lead to clearer, more critical thought in earth and environment-related decision-making, then step up, take responsibility, and be heard.


The Geological Society of America's new Public Interest Web page (see below) is an excellent starting point for learning more about earth science issues in public policy. The page, which is frequently updated, has links leading to hundreds of science and policy sites, including several within GSA. Two links of special note are those of the American Geological Institute (AGI) and the American Geophysical Union (AGU), groups with which GSA works closely on public policy issues. These sites, and other science and policy sites, are listed below.

A final note: If I have learned one truest thing in three months on the Hill, it is that Congress listens to its constituents. Letters and phone calls from home state residents are taken extremely seriously by representatives and are responded to, and compiled, by staff as a priority. Clips from hometown newspapers are read throughout the day and continually discussed. Time taken to contact your representative, to get involved in local science issues, or to educate your community about basic geoscience, is never time wasted. Spread the word.

Melody Brown Burkins, 1999–2000 GSA-USGS Congressional Science Fellow, serves on the staff of Senator Patrick J. Leahy (Democrat—Vermont). This one-year fellowship is supported by GSA and by the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, under Assistance Award 1434-HQ-97-GR-03188. The views and conclusions contained in this article 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 or GSA. You can contact Burkins by mail at the Office of Senator Patrick Leahy, 433 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510, by phone at (202) 224-4242, or by e-mail.