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Geoscientists: Invite Congress into Your World

by Rachel Sours-Page, GSA Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 11, no. 4 (April 2001)

Since I arrived on Capitol Hill on October 10, 2000, I have lived through the never-ending finale to the 106th Congress (which I was assured would end within a week of my beginning in Representative Earl Blumenauer's office), the uncertainties surrounding our presidential election, and now the transition in administrations and all of the changes that take place when one political party controls the House, the Senate, and the presidency for the first time in many years. These have been exciting and tumultuous times, indeed.

As a scientist arriving in Washington, D.C., I had some fantastical ideas about what I could accomplish. I thought that my presence here would be immediately recognized and appreciated, and that I would dutifully serve as a liaison between the scientific (geoscience) community and the legislature. When asked what I would be doing with this year, I told people that I would be something like a science advisor, helping to educate members of Congress so that they could make intelligent, scientifically based decisions.

What I have found is something quite different. While political decisions often have their foundations in scientific research (Everglades restoration, genetically modified foods, and the National Missile Defense System), many levels of interest groups and staff members separate Congress, as a whole, from that science. Science appears in the congressional office only in the form of factoids and polls. In addition, not only is science unspoken on "the Hill," legislators are so far removed from it that there is little perceived need for it. After four months in Congress, I have found that the battle for scientists on Capitol Hill is not to present science coherently, but to make the case for science to factor in to decisions at all.

With that said, I would consider Representative Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and, in fact, any congressperson who seeks out congressional fellows, to be an exception to the rule. Representative Blumenauer has made a concerted effort to surround himself with experts, or "certified smart people," as he calls them. It speaks volumes about a congressman that in this world of information overload, he would seek the facts underlying the jargon. My office has two fellows-me and one sponsored by the American Planning Association.

For the benefit of those congressmen who are not fortunate enough to have fellows, there are many ways that we, as geoscientists, can share our resources and reintroduce science into the legislative process. For example, my time in Representative Blumenauer's office is dedicated to issues related to water. I became the water legislative assistant because I wrote on my resume that my Ph.D. focused on marine geology-that was my compromise in trying to describe mid-oceanic-ridge basalts to the layperson in two words or less. Representative Blumenauer saw the word marine, and, sitting on the Water Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee had a need for someone to deal in water, and so he chose me. Water... rocks, what's the difference, right?

The congressman's two big water agenda items for the year involve reforms of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). His work with the USACE stems from growing public concern for the diminished integrity and accountability within the corps due to secretary of the Army's report confirming some fuzzy math in project cost-benefit analyses. To this end, I have started (on the congressman's behalf) the Corps Reform Caucus, a bipartisan group interested in working toward a financially and scientifically accountable Army Corps of Engineers. He is also aware of a great many projects, mostly beach nourishment and flood control projects that have questionable scientific merits. Representative Blumenauer would like to see the corps implement both an independent peer review and an increase in local community participation in the planning stage of projects. Both of these are areas in which geoscientists could be involved.

There are other ways in which geoscientists can instill science into the legislative consciousness. First, we should always look for the opportunity to invite Congress into our world. Invite your representative (or their staff) to your university, show them your facilities, your students' research, and give them reasons to be proud. Tell them where your funding comes from, and what you need to maintain (or improve on) this level of excellence in the future. You cannot assume that they will know that the National Science Foundation budget is crucial to your livelihood.

Second, provide "one-pagers." Congressional staff love one-page summaries of issues. If you know of natural hazards being ignored in your community (Are they building on a slope prone to landslides? Is that new development in the flood plain? Isn't that waste-management plant being built on a fault?), write a one-pager on the hazards and where they exist in your community. Educate your representative, make him or her aware of how geoscience issues affect a community, and they are more likely to be involved. Also, if you make yourself known as a good resource, they are more likely to call on you with future questions. These small steps will give back to the geoscience community many times over-they will bring the geosciences to the forefront of the legislature's radar screen and simultaneously put our science to use to build better communities.

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This manuscript is submitted for publication by Rachel Sours-Page, 2000-2001 GSA-USGS 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 USGS, Department of the Interior, under Assistance Award No. 1434-HQ-97-GR-03188. 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. Rachel Sours-Page can be reached at, (202) 225-4792, 1406 Longworth House Office Bldg., Washington, D.C. 20515.