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Geology from the Hill: Final Report

by Chester F. (Skip) Watts, 2001-02 GSA Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 13, no. 2 (February 2003)

My tour as the GSA-U.S. Geological Survey Congressional Science Fellow came to a close on November 1, but the effects will last a lifetime. I've come to see the world in an entirely new light, and I've gained a deeper understanding of the complex world of public policy. I've changed in many ways, but then so has everyone since September of 2001. It's been an honor to serve the profession in this way. I thank GSA and the USGS for making the opportunity available.

In my last report, I promised a glimpse into the day-to-day activities of congressional fellows. Experiences on the Hill vary from year to year and with the offices that fellows enter, but many facets remain common to all. I knew very little of what lay ahead when I arrived in Washington and I felt some understandable apprehension. Now I leave knowing at least one office on Capitol Hill where always I will feel at home.

For background, congressional fellows are funded by outside sources, including professional societies and government agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, to serve as assistants or advisors to congressmen or their committees, at no cost to congress. Fellows become fully integrated "staffers" with all of the duties and responsibilities. They are authorized to assist and represent their member of congress in countless capacities. Importantly, neither the fellow nor the funding bodies may have their own agendas. Fellows are to remain unbiased in their work, providing technical support for what we all hope are informed political decisions. In addition to the GSA-USGS fellowship, the American Geological Institute, the American Geophysical Union, and the Soil Science Society of America also sponsor geoscience fellows.

I met fellows representing chemistry, physics, biology, meteorology, astronomy, medicine, and pharmacology. And there were fellows in law, economics, political science, military science, education, and many other disciplines. Fellows comprise a remarkable group of motivated and accomplished individuals, and I am lucky to have worked among them. For example, I was proud to serve on Senator Joseph Lieberman's personal staff alongside fellow Adrian Erkenbrack. Erkenbrack was in the Pentagon during the morning of September 11, 2001. Months later, the senator presented a medal from the U.S. Army-its highest award for non-combat heroism-to Erkenbrack for his part in rescuing victims at considerable personal risk.

However, more typical activities include researching policy issues, seeking input from established experts, meeting with lobbyists, meeting with constituents, briefing the congressman on issues, writing news releases and opinion editorials, arranging and staffing meetings for the member, and drafting position papers.

Given the title of Legislative Fellow in the Lieberman office, I essentially served as a science and technology advisor. With my background in consulting for various state highway departments, I found myself handling all of the transportation issues. I dealt with not only highways but with ferries, trains, buses, airlines, and even bike paths. The issues ranged from appropriations for bridge repairs, to arming pilots in the cockpit, to preparing for reauthorization of federal transportation funding.

When it was learned that I taught courses in computer applications, I also became the "computer policy guy." I was asked to produce a whitepaper detailing the history, technology, policies, and projected economic impact of the coming age of truly high-speed Internet. I am grateful that the report was praised on Capitol Hill and in industry as a notable contribution to legislative discourse. And I had the fascinating task of actually drafting a bill, which came to be called the National Broadband Strategy Act of 2002. In the senator's absence, I carried the bill to the Capitol and introduced it to the Senate, although protocol dictated that I do it quietly at the cloakroom door and certainly not on the floor.

It would be impossible to recount here the meetings, luncheons, and press conferences, or do justice to the serious geological and environmental issues that arose. My intent is to provide some of the flavor. But I must say that among the most fascinating events to me as a geologist were briefings on geology and the war in Afghanistan. I'm still trying to convince certain folks across the river that understanding the distribution and nature of geologic structures is vital to predicting the behavior of landscapes subjected to ordnance. But that's another story.

Now I begin a new adventure as the Jahn's Distinguished Lecturer, sponsored by GSA and the Association of Engineering Geologists. I have technical lectures planned on topics in rock mechanics, as well as a general lecture on geology and public policy. My message is simple. Congressional fellows are invaluable on the Hill for informing politicians, but in reality the public influences politicians even more with votes. There are many ways for each of us to reach out and help educate the public. Look for them. In the meantime, I hope to see you in your hometown sometime during the next year.

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, 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.