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Back to Academia: Lessons learned from a year on the Hill

by Sarah K. Noble, 2004-2005 GSA-U.S. Geological Survey Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 16, no. 3 (March 2006)

This is my final report for GSA Today. My adventures in Congress have ended, for now anyway. I am currently a post-doc at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Johnson Space Center in Houston, which means that I have gone suddenly from writing NASA policy to living it.

After a year walking the hallowed halls of our nation's Capitol, I have chosen to return to academia. Believe it or not, I have chosen the road less traveled. Many congressional fellows have decided to stay in the policy arena. Some are continuing in the jobs they held as fellows; some are moving on to new jobs with lobbying firms or within agencies. To be sure, I am not alone: there are others going back to academia, but we are definitely the minority. DC, as it turns out, is a hard place to leave. The phenomenon is so common, it even has a name: Potomac fever. Though much less deadly than the avian flu, Potomac fever should not be underestimated — it is very difficult to shake once you're infected.

Returning to academia was not an easy decision for me. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Hill. The fellowship was everything I expected: challenging, thrilling, a wonderful learning experience. I leave knowing that I made a difference. I had an impact, a small impact maybe, but definitely an impact. So why am I leaving? I miss research. I miss doing science and the thrill of figuring something out that no one has ever figured out before. As exciting as working for Congress was, it doesn't match that thrill.

One month into my return to academia, I have found the transition to be in some ways easy and in other ways difficult. On the one hand, it's nice to again be surrounded by geologists; it feels comfortable, like the jeans and T-shirts I have returned to wearing after a year of suits and skirts. It is wonderful to be able to discuss science with people who know what I'm talking about and to not have to explain for the thousandth time that space weathering (my research) is not the same as space weather.

On the other hand, I find myself some­what disoriented. I tried to keep up with my field last year, I really did. I spent many weekends doing science. I presented at a couple of conferences; I finished up revisions on a paper and got it published; I even reviewed an article or two. But, predictably, my efforts were not enough. I spent the first week of my post-doc finding and photocopying all the articles I should have read last year. The stack was two inches thick, double-sided — daunting, to say the least.

Reading through my research notes from last year, I find that they are now barely comprehensible to me. The notations and symbols that were second nature to me are now Greek (well, technically, some of them were Greek to begin with). There are cryptic notes in the margins that I am sure are important, and they are clearly in my handwriting, yet their significance escapes me. I remember somewhere hearing a rule of thumb that if you are away from your research for more than a year or two it is almost impossible to go back. I was gone for a year and a half, and I would say that that's a pretty good rule of thumb. Things are slowly coming back to me, and I am sure that in time I will be back up to speed as though I never left.

In my absence, academia hasn't changed much, but I have, in ways big and small. My view of my role as a scientist, of my role within NASA, of NASA's role in the world, has been altered. What does that mean for me, for my research, my career path? I'm honestly not sure yet.

I had forgotten how much slower the pace is in research. Deadlines are known weeks, even months, in advance (though that rarely stops us from waiting until the last minute). Not so in Congress. There, deadlines come fast and furious. Opportunities appear and disappear so capriciously, and an opportunity missed may not come again. I learned last year that fast but sloppy is often better than too slow to be useful. This, I am afraid, is something I may have to unlearn in the lab, where "sloppy" is almost never good.

Something I didn't even realize I missed until I returned: academia allows for — requires even — time for contemplation, time to think a problem through, to examine it from different angles, assess the evidence, and follow the logic. That kind of time is a luxury rarely afforded to congressional staffers. There are too many issues to dwell on any one topic for very long. Staffers often rely instead on others, like the national academies, to do our contemplating, and they do a great job, but knowledge that is handed to us is rarely appreciated as much as knowledge that is earned.

My short stint "in the real world" has also made me more appreciative of the great freedom we have as academics to pursue our own interests. Few other careers allow that; in fact, almost no one has as much freedom as a post-doc. That freedom is something I sincerely hope I don't squander during the next couple of years.

There are other lessons I will take away from my experiences. I learned that the members of Congress are people too. They have their own fears and ambitions, ideas and goals. They often work very long hours, and most of them genuinely want to do the best they can for their constituents and make the world a better place to live.

I learned that everything takes longer than you expect, no matter how low your expectations are. As frustrating as that can be at times, it's important to remember that our system of government was designed to be slow on purpose. It should be difficult to make something into a law.

I learned that science is only one factor in any given policy decision, and it is often not a major factor. Science tends to be used when it's convenient, when it supports an argument. When it doesn't support the argument, it is often ignored, discounted, or worse: warped until it does. Climate change science is a particularly troubling area right now: the Senate held a climate change hearing last fall with Michael Crichton, the science fiction author, as the expert witness. In the House, we saw something of a new low this year when Rep. Joe Barton, Chair of the Energy Committee, questioned the validity of peer-reviewed, published results and tried to intimidate the authors in order to discredit them. Things are not all bad, though. I found the House Science Committee to be something of an oasis: there, both science and scientists are respected. Scientists are listened to; their opinions carry weight. The Science Committee Chair, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, was quick to condemn Rep. Barton for his actions. Still, even in our own little oasis, science was often trumped by economics or politics. Science has a vital role to play in making sound policy decisions, and it is up to us as scientists to make sure that our voices are heard, even if they are not always heeded.

As much as I missed science when I worked for Congress, now that I have returned to research, I miss policy. My friends and former colleagues in DC keep me fairly well informed about what is going on, and I am looking for ways to be more involved as a geologist, like going back to the Hill for congressional visits day and participating on GSA's Geology and Public Policy Committee. I realize now that you don't have to work for Congress to have an impact on science policy; you just have to be willing to put forward some effort. For now, I am quite happy to be doing research, yet I imagine the day will come when policy will lure me back to DC. I am not immune to Potomac fever.

This fellowship has been a fantastic experience; it has opened many doors and provided me with many opportunities. I am grateful to GSA and the U.S. Geological Survey for the opportunity. Thanks to the staff at GSA and the American Association for the Advancement of Science for all their support last year. Thanks also to the Science Committee staff, who were so welcoming and helpful to me, particularly Dick Obermann, my mentor and boss, who was endlessly patient and taught me so much.

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 .