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Toto, I'm not in Kansas anymore: A geologist's observations of Capitol Hill

by Nicole Gasparini, 2005-2006 GSA-USGS Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 16, no. 3 (March 2006)

When I was nine years old, my family took a road trip around the southwestern United States. Because we visited such amazing sites as the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce National Parks, Death Valley, and Canyon de Chelly, one might think this trip set in motion my career as a geomorphologist. If it did, it was a very slow start — what I remember most from that trip was the shocking discovery that some of the animals that lived in those parks were endangered and that species might disappear in my lifetime. I started a journal, recording the name of every endangered species I learned about, and promised myself that no animal would go extinct on my watch. Unfortunately, I was not able to keep my promise.

I have always been one to set ambitious, if not somewhat unrealistic, goals. When I learned last spring that GSA had selected me as this year's Congressional Science Fellow, I was thrilled. This was an opportunity I couldn't turn down. I obsessively follow politics, and I am passionate about environmental issues as well as the importance of research and education. I would definitely be able to do something important during my time with Congress. I just didn't know exactly what that "something important" would be.

As I was moving to Washington, D.C., I had my epiphany. Hurricane Katrina had just hit the Gulf Coast. Who better to attack the problem of how to reduce the destruction of future hurricanes and rebuild New Orleans than a fluvial geomorphologist? I imagined congressional offices clamoring for my services. I couldn't wait to start.

Before I could let the offices fight over me, I had to attend a two-week crash course on the federal government, run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which runs the Congressional Fellows program. The course devoted an entire day to the budget. I was insulted. I was a math major as an undergraduate; I didn't need a whole day to learn about adding and subtracting numbers. Soon, however, I realized that the budget is more about politics, special interests, and constituents than it is about math. I learned quickly that I had a lot to learn.

After the orientation, the AAAS let us loose on Capitol Hill to find a congressional office in which to work for the year. Feeling a bit dazed and confused about how a bill becomes a law (hint: it's much more complex than a Saturday morning cartoon) but still fairly confident that I could accomplish something significant related to the rebuilding of New Orleans, I left my résumé with House, Senate, and Committee offices.

As I waited for the flood of calls, I had some time to attend hearings. The purpose of a hearing is to educate members of Congress and their staffs about issues pertinent to a committee. Experts give statements and answer questions from the committee members. I attended a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works titled "The Role of Science in Environmental Policy Making." The star witness was Michael Crichton, a medical doctor with undergraduate and medical degrees from Harvard, but who is better known for writing science fiction. He talked about the degree of rigor in medical research and noted how "the protocols of climate science appear considerably more relaxed," asserting that "suspect values are deleted because a scientist deems them erroneous." I wondered if elected officials and others really think that scientists throw out data at whim.

Later in the hearing, William Gray, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, gave his view of climate change. Gray presented a spaghetti diagaram — figure with lots of boxes and circles and crossing arrows — illustrating the complex interactions between atmosphere, land, and ocean. This diagram showed that, in Gray's words, "it is impossible to write computer code to represent such complexity and then realistically integrate hundreds of thousands of times steps into the future." After taking a semester-long graduate-level class on land-atmosphere interactions, I know this is not something Senators can grasp in 20 minutes, regardless of their intelligence. I use a numerical model to study landscape evolution; in my opinion, my bread-and-butter numerical models were being misrepresented. There were no other scientists at the hearing to present the other side of climate change science or explain how climate models are used.

In Gray's opinion, recent rises in global temperatures are almost solely the result of natural climate change. Senator Barbara Boxer countered Gray by pointing out that large, international, and reputable scientific societies like the American Geophysical Union (over 41,000 members) and the American Meteorological Society (over 11,000 members) have policy statements recognizing that human activities play a role in global climate change. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton also pointed out that Crichton's critique of climate change is published in a fiction novel, not in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Gray, on the other hand, talked about how non-mainstream scientists need to keep their mouths shut or "be punished if they do not accept the current views of their funding agents." I couldn't help but wonder if the nonscientists in the room understood the practice of peer review, for both publishing and obtaining funding. Those who have never been part of the funding and publishing race could be led to think that the current system is highly biased, that it doesn't allow for naysayers like those who, many years ago, wouldn't give in to the belief that Earth was flat. Maybe I'm an optimist, but I think the review system works fairly well.

Clearly, Capitol Hill is not academia. I started to wonder if I'd miscalculated about what I could accomplish as a scientist on "the Hill." In one of my interviews, the office staff told me that science doesn't play a role in policy and that many policy decisions are made in opposition to scientific studies. This office was an extreme exception; most offices were friendly and welcoming. However, no office was willing to make any statements about plans for rebuilding New Orleans, let alone about tackling longer-term issues like the destruction of wetlands or how broader problems, besides the breaching of levees, had contributed to the disaster.

My goals for this year have changed. While working in Congress, I hope to learn as much as I can about science policy and the legislative process. I will not be rebuilding levees or restoring habitat for endangered species. I've always intended to return to academia and integrate what I will have learned about policy this year into the science classroom. If I can grasp how science and scientists contribute to the policy-making process, I will be able to apply that to any number of issues for my students.

With this in mind, I decided to work in the office of Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey. Markey's office has a long history of working with science fellows; some have even remained in his office as permanent staff after their fellowship year. I knew I was already a duck-out-of-water, so I decided to lessen the blow a bit by joining a science-friendly office. I've already been impressed with the office's general respect for scientists and scientific studies. This may seem trivial, but I've learned not to take anything for granted on the Hill.

Returning to endangered species, my original inspiration: in September 2005, the House passed the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2005. Congressman Richard Pombo, sponsor of the legislation, maintains that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 needed fixing. Although many environmentalists agree that the ESA needs some changes, they also believe that Pombo's legislation could have devastating effects on endangered species. One criticism of the bill is that it requires the federal government to pay landowners for profits lost due to habitat protection. Many argue that this could be an incentive to build in areas with sensitive habitat. Pombo's bill must pass in the Senate before it becomes law. It is now in the hands of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, the same committee before which Crichton and Gray appeared as expert witnesses. I may not see the end of this legislation before I leave Congress, and most likely I will not be able to save the endangered animals this year, but I will follow future hearings on the fate of this legislation.

This manuscript is submitted for publication by Nicole Gasparini, 2005-2006 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. 05HQGR0141. 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. Gasparini can be reached at .