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Science and policy: An intern’s view

From left to right: Laura Bochner (AGI/AIPG summer intern), Liz Landau (AGU Public Affairs Coordinator), Patrick Leahy (AGI Executive Director), article author Corina Cerovski-Darriau, and Jill Luchner (AGI/AIPG summer intern) at the levee briefing AGI helped organize on Capitol Hill in June 2008. Click photo for larger image.

by Corina Cerovski-Darriau

Editor’s note: The following is published in support of the AGI Government Affairs internship program and does not necessarily reflect the views of GSA or its members.

I have always believed there is an important link between policy and science that is often overlooked. Policy aims to protect people and work toward the betterment of society. Science tries to understand, explain, and improve the world around us. At some point, the research that scientists conduct and the discoveries they make that impact society should be transferred to the public. This is where policy making enters: trying to implement scientific findings into legislation, regulations, and federal investments.

As a recent graduate from the University of California at Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in geology and a minor in peace and conflict studies, I studied a little of both fields. In particular, I have become interested in natural hazard research and disaster mitigation. Last year, based on my essay on landslide risk awareness and mitigation, I was selected by the Geological Society of America (GSA) to be the U.S. Student Representative at the United Nations International Year of the Planet Earth Conference. After this experience, and to continue to meet my science and policy interests, I took a break from school to do a tour in Washington D.C. as a summer intern for the American Geological Institute’s (AGI) Government Affairs Program.

AGI is a nonprofit made up of 44 geoscience and professional organizations that represent more than 120,000 geoscientists. The Government Affairs Program at AGI is a bridge between policy makers and geoscientists around the country that aims to inform policy makers about the geosciences through educational briefings and expert testimony at hearings as well as to get the needs of the geoscience community recognized in Washington D.C. We also alert the geoscience community to pertinent federal science policy that is being discussed on Capitol Hill through our Web site (www.agiweb.org/gap/) and monthly review articles.

While I was with AGI this summer, I worked to keep the geoscience community informed of current policy by writing articles for the monthly review and summarizing relevant hearings. I focused mainly on natural hazards, but went to hearings about everything from polar ice–breaking capabilities to future NASA plans.

AGI interns are essentially reporters. When we attended oversight or legislative hearings held by the various House and Senate science, resource, and environmental committees, we listened to experts in their fields present testimony and answer questions from members of Congress. I had the privilege of listening to former Senator John Glenn discuss NASA, Dr. Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), speak on polar research, several Army Corps of Engineer officials describe the aging levees, and Dr. Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), advocate for science diplomacy. After listening to the testimonies and questions, I wrote a summary and posted it on our Web site for the public to read.

We also got to attend various conferences on behalf of AGI. I attended the National Academies of Science’s “Making Big Solar Work” symposium about solar energy, the “Find More, Use Less” forum about offshore drilling and oil shale development organized by the Senate Republican Conference, and a “Clean Air Cool Planet” briefing that advocated the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy unit within the Department of Energy to facilitate revolutionary high risk, high pay-off energy research. In addition, I helped AGI with a congressional briefing about levees and a congressional reception which highlighted the NSF-funded research including the work of five geoscientists on “Singing Icebergs and Climate Change; Age and Origin of the Grand Canyon; and Uplift and Arsenic at Yellowstone.

My internship, now completed, was a broad range of experiences that still just barely began to show me the work of the federal government, federal science agencies, and the AGI member societies. Spending time on the Hill and visiting with congressional staffers, scientists from geoscience societies, the NSF, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other organizations introduced me to an important new world. A multitude of critical issues are being discussed in Washington D.C., and of those, many should be of concern to the geoscience community. I enjoyed trying to improve the connection between geoscientists and policy makers while I was at AGI because, in the end, science is intimately tied to policy and policy to science.