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Geology from the Hill: A Challenging Beginning

by Chester F. (Skip) Watts, 2001-02 GSA Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 12, no. 3 (March 2002)

Before coming to Washington, I was told by folks who are "in the know" that this would be a year that would "open my eyes" and "change my life." After all, becoming a congressional staff member, totally immersed in the legislative process and helping to shape public policy, was certain to make me more politically aware as a scientist and as a citizen. I was eager to jump right in and do my part to help change the world for the better. No one foretold, however, that terrorist attacks less than two weeks after my arrival would dramatically change the entire world and drastically divert the attention of those working on Capitol Hill. This is a challenging time in Washington, and I feel fortunate to be here right now. So for this first article, I chose to describe the unexpected events and unusual early days of my fellowship year and my transition from the world of geology to the world of politics. In later articles, I will describe the great need that exists for each of us to become involved, even in little ways, in matters of public policy and geoscience education.

To set the stage, I accepted a position on the personal staff of Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat from Connecticut. It is an honor to be working in his office. Senator Lieberman is a respected member of the Senate Armed Services Committee as well as a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. He also serves as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Needless to say, the office is a very busy place. Normally located in the Hart Senate Office Building, presently closed for anthrax decontamination, we now operate from cozy (i.e., crowded) improvised workspaces in borrowed office hallways on Capitol Hill. By the time this goes to press, I have every hope that all of the Senate office buildings will once again be open for business as usual.

For me, this all began as a rather modest interest in public policy related to natural hazards and safety. I was encouraged by a former fellow to apply for the GSA-USGS Congressional Science Fellowship so that I could experience more of the public policy building process. I applied, not really expecting to be chosen. Yet on September 5, 2001, I happily found myself sitting in the Washington, D.C., auditorium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) along with nearly 100 other science fellows, ready to begin two weeks of orientation in preparation for a year of government service. Sponsored by various other professional science and engineering societies and by some government agencies, these fellows include biologists, physicists, chemists, astronomers, engineers, doctors, dentists, and veterinarians, to mention only a few. Many were already assigned to positions in such places as the Department of State, the Department of Justice, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Defense, and the National Institutes of Health. Thirty-five of us were congressional fellows and would take positions as staff members in the House of Representatives or Senate, working for specific committees or on the personal staffs of members of Congress.

I cannot say enough about the AAAS orientation provided each year for science fellows. I sometimes describe it as the "You are There" version of a college government class. The political world of Washington, D.C., has its own history, protocols, and vocabulary. We were introduced to all of it in a whirlwind of illustrious guest speakers, workshops, and site visits. Orientation topics too numerous to fully list here included such all-time favorites as "Where Does Science Fit in Public Policy," "Why You'll Never Understand the Policy Process Unless You Understand the Budget," and "Reflections on 53 Years of Science and Technology Policy."

Some titles admittedly seemed a bit dry at first glance, yet they each contained a flood of interesting and useful information. I was not terribly surprised to learn, for example, that there have been just a few noteworthy times in American history when the federal government dramatically sought the counsel of scientists and increased the resources available for science research and/or education. The first came during the Civil War, when President Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences specifically to investigate and respond to scientific questions, initially of a military nature, for the edification of government officials. During World War II, tremendous resources were pumped into science and engineering research for the development of radar, aircraft blind landing systems, sonar, and nuclear weapons, to mention only a few. And in 1957, Russia's entry into the space age with the launch of Sputnik I prompted Congress to authorize far-reaching new programs in science education and space exploration.

In recent years, the general consensus among scientists is that Congress and the president tend to pay very little attention to science when developing public policy. The thought is that, in government, a convincing anecdotal story will generally win out over a myriad of detailed studies, and policies seem to develop based more on ideologies than on scientific thought. So it did bring at least some sense of satisfaction to many when the media quoted President Bush as saying something like, Bring me scientists! as the war on terrorism, and especially the war on anthrax, really got under way. And that was accompanied by the Department of Defense issuing a Broad Agency Announcement, seeking proposals for the development and application of new science and technology useful in detecting and combating terrorist threats at home and abroad. But despite this renewed attention to science in response to threats, the need to push for good scientific thought in building public policy will no doubt remain.

At the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, we met with the White House Science Advisor's Chief of Staff and were briefed on the history of science advice to the president. At the National Press Club, we learned of science applications in the Judicial Branch. Pentagon staff provided insight into science and technology at the Department of Defense. And the staff of the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress detailed the role of the service in addressing the information needs of all members of congress and their staffs.

As the terror attacks began on September 11, our training schedule placed us at the Library of Congress, across the street from the Capitol Building. With the Pentagon already hit and another plane believed to be headed to Washington, everyone on Capitol Hill was evacuated to the streets. Traffic was in gridlock and the subway was closed.

I chose to hike to the Pentagon, just four miles away, and was allowed only to watch as fire and rescue crews worked under heavy police and military protection.

The days that followed saw changes on Capitol Hill unparalleled since World War II. The biggest issue facing Congress before the attacks was protecting the Social Security surplus, balancing it against President Bush's tax refunds, and allocating reasonable funding to education, health care, science research, defense, and the like. Following September 11, priorities quickly changed to bailing out airlines, combating terrorism, and strengthening defense and homeland security. The focus of AAAS orientation lectures and informal discussions switched to foreign policy related to terrorism, chemical and biological weapons, and how governments can deal with crises. With a special reception in the Capitol Building for new congressional fellows, the orientation period came to a close, and it was time to go to work.

Many of the congressional offices that had specifically requested fellows were now operating in crisis mode. Some staffs were so busy dealing with issues on a minute-to-minute basis that there was simply no time to bring in and incorporate new fellows to help out. And then the anthrax letters began to appear. The Hart Senate Office Building was suddenly closed. Staff members there left behind files, case histories, address books, calendars, and even personal belongings. Through perseverance and creativity, new workspaces were squeezed into other buildings. It was not easy, but the Senate continued to function. That was the environment into which I finally stepped. By the time I joined other staff members in their makeshift office, they had secured two phones and three computers for seven people, and personal workspace was literally a chair and our laps. Amazingly, not a single person was complaining and not a single person wanted to be somewhere else.

Early in orientation, we were told that science expertise is generally limited in most congressional offices. Fellows might be asked to work on most any issues involving science and technology, including some not directly related to our specific disciplines. I have been fortunate to become involved in some geology-related projects with the Department of Interior and the Department of Defense. And, I was asked by one congressional office to work on air force technology and defense issues. The variety of things going on is exciting. As things settle down, a major focus for me will be working on broadband issues and possibly helping to shape the exciting future of high-speed Internet.

It will come as no surprise to most of you that geology is playing a significant role in many aspects of the war on terrorism. From the geotechnical evaluation of the World Trade Center foundations and New York City infrastructure, to the caves and battlefields of Afghanistan, geologic knowledge is being put to the test. Some can be shared and some cannot. But I haven't talked to a geologist yet who hasn't looked carefully at the Bin Laden videos and speculated on their geologic setting and location. And I'm proud to say that the USGS is providing valuable data to the armed services. Soon will come relief and reconstruction efforts in the rebuilding of Afghan infrastructure-airports, roads, dams, and hospitals. Perhaps most important of all will be providing adequate clean water in an already drought-stricken region. The importance of geology in helping to set right that which has gone terribly wrong cannot be treated lightly.

I want to thank GSA and the USGS for making this opportunity available to me. I also want to thank former Congressional Science Fellows Dave Verardo and Rachel Sours-Page for their help and encouragement. In closing, I leave you with some simple thoughts. The public elects the officials. Let's all do our best to educate the public. This is a great country.

Submitted for publication by Chester F. Watts, 2001-2002 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.