Marketing Geology to Congress
by Rachel Sours-Page, GSA Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 12, no. 1 (January 2002)
With this, my final report to GSA, I think it important to relate the most significant thing I learned from my year in Congress: the importance of marketing. If you've spent any time in business, you know that marketing is key to a product's success. Marketing convinces people they can't live without something they never knew they needed. And yet, even though those of us in geology know that the world cannot live without knowledge of earth systems and processes-that it's a life-and-death matter to understand how earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides work-we fail to adequately convey this need to the public, and perhaps more critically, to Congress. In order to secure adequate funding for geologic research and credibility and respect for our profession, we must learn to promote the value of our work.
Geoscientists often lament the lack of funding for the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). I believe that low funding levels reflect the perceived lack of importance geoscience has in people's lives. Geoscientists have done a poor job of educating legislators. Most important, they've done a poor marketing job. If the general public perceived a need for the geosciences, it would be outraged whenever funding was threatened.
There are many ways to convey awareness and understanding of geology-as well as its importance-to Congress. Geology societies are already taking the first step by funding congressional science fellowships, which place geologists in key positions to inform legislators before decisions are made. However, the fellows' influence is limited to the few offices with which they come into contact.
Congressional offices are typically bombarded with information, funding requests, and lobbyists. In order to be heard, the geology community needs to participate in the information game. Geologic institutions (university geology departments, state geologic surveys, industries that employ geologists) could send periodic updates to their local representatives and senators. Newsletters could discuss current projects, how they pertain to the local community, and why they are important to society as a whole. Individuals from these institutions could follow up with visits to their congressional members' staffs. (Congressional offices value information coming from their own constituents.) By developing a relationship with each office, geologists are sending the message that they are important and that they want to help when specific information is needed.
Our planet provides ample opportunity for geologists to prove their worth. When natural disasters occur, especially within the borders of the United States, legislators seek reliable information. At such times, geologists should meet with legislators, provide clear, concise information about the events, and express the importance of research programs that study such phenomena.
Nearly all of the work I did in Congressman Earl Blumenauer's office was connected to geology. Much of it involved natural disasters and/or earth systems. Because natural disasters are both relatively common and inevitable, we have an ongoing opportunity to educate Congress about geologic processes and the need for funding specific geologic research programs. As morbid as it might sound, targeting particular congressional offices representing districts and/or states hit by disasters with information about the phenomena is very helpful in the hours and days after an event. GSA, the USGS, or any other group could keep packets of information about earthquakes, landslides, coastal erosion, etc., on hand. These could be supplemented with specific information-such as the size of an earthquake, its epicenter, the likelihood for aftershocks, and the estimated affected area-and sent out in the event of a disaster.
Whose job is it to market the geosciences? It's yours, your colleagues', and mine. It's the responsibility of the largest concentrations of geoscientists in the nation: the professional societies, academic institutions, state surveys, and the USGS itself. With a little money and know-how, GSA and other geological organizations could lobby Congress in the same way that other special interest groups do. Some might say that we can't afford to spend money on something so frivolous as marketing. I would argue that we can't afford not to. For too long, the geologic community and the physical sciences in general have taken a backseat to flashier fields such as medical research. It's time for geology to be recognized for the important role it plays in everyone's lives.
I would like to once again thank GSA for providing me with the opportunity to work in Congress for the 2000-2001 fellowship year. It was a tremendous experience, both personally and professionally, that I recommend to anyone. I encourage anyone from GSA or the geologic community at large to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any questions or comments they might have about my fellowship year and/or my ideas for ways to increase public awareness of the geosciences.
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, Dept. 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.