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Yet Another Case of Potomac Fever

by Melody Brown Burkins, GSA Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 11, no. 1 (January 2001)
excerpted from her semiannual report to the GSA Council

I loved Dartmouth College. The school's New England setting was idyllic, my colleagues were clever and engaging, and my students were always eager to learn. Yet on September 1, 2000, exactly thirteen months after I left the Dartmouth Green for a "temporary" stint on Capitol Hill, I held up my right hand and took an oath to serve as a permanent staff member in the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C.

I am not the first GSA–US Geological Survey (USGS) Congressional Science Fellow to catch Potomac Fever—the Washingtonian phrase for becoming ensnared in the political world—and I am sure I will not be the last. Many of us have realized that the chance to use our geoscience background to inform policy issues is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that cannot be wasted.

I believe, even more firmly after my year on the Hill, that the GSA–USGS fellowship is an extremely valuable opportunity, both for the individual fellows and for GSA and the USGS, who gain a politically informed scientist and effective liaison to governmental affairs.

Three weeks of orientation by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) introduced all the science and technology fellows to the procedures, personalities, and customs of the legislative and executive branches.

We were told by several famous guest speakers, from dignitaries to cabinet members, that they wished they, too, could take the orientation. Evidently, the buzz in Washington is that the AAAS orientation is the best of any out there. The fact that GSA-USGS fellows have the opportunity to take part in it is a great privilege.

Orientation was followed by two to three high-adrenaline weeks when all 32 congressional fellows tried to match with an office. As I had just moved from Norwich, Vermont, and greatly admired Senator Patrick Leahy, I was excited to see that he was looking for a fellow interested in energy, environment, and natural resource issues. He was also interested in someone who knew agriculture and, although I had worked with ecologists at Dartmouth, I admitted I knew little about farms. Still, I applied and was happy to find that Senator Leahy's office and I were mutually interested in each other.

The AAAS orientation staff had warned us that our first three months on the Hill would be our "clueless" months, the second three months would be our "less clueless, but still pretty out of it" months, and after six months we might know what we were doing—but just barely. I found this time line to be consoling after my first time covering Senate floor procedures. After straining to understand strange procedural jargon announced over a phone line, I let everyone know there was a "Giant Resolution at 5 p.m." I soon found out that the speaker's accent had led me astray, and that the Democrats and Republicans were debating a (much smaller) "Joint Resolution."

Despite Giant Resolution announcements, my office had enough faith in me to ask if I would step in as an acting legislative assistant when my immediate mentor left for another position just at the end of my "clueless" phase. I at first politely declined. After all, I thought, I am a geoscientist and an adjunct professor, not a legislative aide. However, I realized the opportunities I would have to learn more about the budget process, governmental programs, policy making, and Vermont, and I decided to accept the position as the senator's acting legislative assistant–congressional fellow. It was a wonderful decision that I have not regretted.

As the legislative aide for energy, environment, natural resources, and agriculture for a senior senator on the appropriations committee, I worked on issues ranging from dam safety to national park maintenance, heating oil to zebra mussels, and crop insurance (!) to acid rain. Time after time, my geoscience training helped me understand and explain the fundamental scientific questions underlying the policy issues whether they encompassed geologic hazards, energy supplies, watershed management, carbon sequestration, or air quality.

True, my geoscience training did fail me slightly when I was thrown into Senator Leahy's agricultural issues—especially when I needed to debate disaster insurance for apples, winter wheat prices, and the price of organic milk. But I have survived and learned more than I ever dreamed about science and policy (and cows). As a geologist, I have also had an incredible opportunity to meet and work with state geologists, geologic engineers, and earth and ecosystem scientists throughout Vermont, the nation, and even internationally.

Working for the senator on appropriations issues constantly taps my basic science background. Funding initiatives launched on behalf of basic research this year included efforts to double the National Science Foundation budget in five years, to increase funding at the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and to increase funds for Community and Federal Information Partnerships and the National Mapping programs—all of which expand earth science initiatives and programs to states and universities. Ultimately, after review of the proposals, Senator Leahy was in strong support of increased funding for all of these initiatives.

My continuing education about the budget process impressed me so much and seemed so important for other geoscientists to understand that I tried to summarize it for GSA Today in my second article for the fellowship (June 2000). Appropriations and the scientists' role in urging funding for basic research also were the focus of my talk at Summit 2000 in Reno. The topic is bipartisan, timely, and extremely important. While specific policies on climate change, energy alternatives, agricultural practices, and air quality may be contentious, the need for funding of basic scientific research remains an issue I believe most scientists can support. If I do nothing else after being a GSA–USGS fellow, I hope I can help answer questions from geoscientists about the best way to urge their representatives to fund needed scientific initiatives.

I close by expressing my gratitude and appreciation for this opportunity given me by GSA and the USGS. As a permanent staff member in Senator Leahy's office, I look forward to continuing my relationship with geoscientists and geoscience leaders. I also hope that both organizations will consider me a resource for information about budgets and policies that affect the geoscience community. I do not know if I will be here three years or five—perhaps more depending on the severity of my Potomac Fever—but I will always remember the fellowship sponsors who brought me here.

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 US 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 US 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.