Greetings from Capitol Hill!
by Sarah K. Noble, 2004-2005 GSA-U.S. Geological Survey Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 15, no. 3 (March 2005)
It has certainly been an exciting fall, politically speaking, and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to witness it from the heart of the political world. It is truly amazing how politics permeates everything in this town. Every conversation, no matter what topic you start with, seems to eventually come around to politics.
I am happily settling in to life in this big city. I arrived in D.C. last September and began an intensive three-week orientation with 120 strangers, many of whom have now become close friends and an invaluable support system. Through lectures, field trips, and interactive workshops, all the fellows were given something of a crash course on the U.S. government and the role that science and scientists play in it.
This year's class of fellows is the largest yet in the 30-year history of the program. Thirty-five of us are working with Congress; the rest are scattered throughout the federal government in places like the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and other agencies. We are an incredibly diverse group that includes geologists, chemists, nuclear engineers, biologists, veterinarians, and even psychologists. Some, like me, are fresh out of graduate school, others are on sabbatical from academic or industry positions, and a couple of fellows think this is a fun way to spend their retirement. I have had some fascinating conversations with these people.
After orientation, I had to pound some pavement and find myself a position. The expression "pound the pavement" now has new meaning for me as I quickly learned that the walk between the House and Senate office buildings is not short. What I wouldn't have done to trade in my new dress shoes for my old hiking boots! The interview process itself was quite a learning experience. I interviewed on both the House and Senate side, in both Democrat and Republican offices, and for both personal and committee staff offices. It's amazing to see how each office has its own subculture. Some are very formal with everyone in suits and ties, while others are more relaxed. Senate personal offices are much larger, with 35 or 40 staff members, compared to a typical House office of just eight or nine people. As many of the staff members in a personal office come from the state or district of the member, the office culture tends to reflect the culture of that region of the country. Personal offices, which must deal with every issue that arises, seem to move at a more frantic pace than committee offices, which deal with fewer issues and can take the time to study an issue in more depth.
After about three weeks of dropping off résumés and doing interviews, I joined the minority staff, or Democratic side, of the House Committee on Science. The science committee is divided into four subcommittees, and I have been working largely with the space subcommittee. While I do not engage in daily discussions of the intricacies of space weathering on the Moon and asteroids, topics of my thesis area, I find that my background as a planetary geologist is very useful to the committee. For one thing, I already know most of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's (NASA) acronyms and, more importantly, my point of view as a scientist allows me to come at many issues from a new and different perspective.
NASA and space exploration seem to be turning into quite a hot issue for the upcoming year. Current topics of interest to the space subcommittee this year include the fate of the Hubble telescope, returning shuttles to flight, the future of the space station, and most significant, the direction of the president's Vision for Space Exploration. I am focusing a lot of my attention on NASA's earth and space sciences programs, trying to ensure that these valuable programs don't get lost in the push for manned exploration of the Moon and beyond.
I am very grateful that GSA and the U.S. Geological Survey have given me this opportunity. Scientists have a vital role to play in creating sound science policy, and I am thrilled to be a part of that process. If you have questions about this fellowship program, or if you have suggestions for improving NASA's earth or space sciences programs, please feel free to contact me.
This manuscript is submitted for publication by Sarah K. Noble, 2004-2005 GSA-U.S. Geological Survey 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 U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, under Assistance Award No. 02HQGR0141. 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. Noble can be reached at Sarah.Noble@mail.house.gov.