Trading lava domes for the Capitol dome: A volcanologist learns to be a policy wonk

Volcanologists don’t usually think much about legislative affairs, but in the past year as GSA’s Science Policy Fellow, I’ve found out that science and government – particularly in this country – are intertwined in ways that geoscientists don’t think about much. Now that Congress is in recess and the capital has quieted down for the summer, I’ve had a chance to reflect on how I understood science policy coming into this job, and leaving it.

Working on policy in DC gives you a new perspective – in a lot of different ways!

Working on policy in DC gives you a new perspective – in a lot of different ways!

I grew up in the Washington DC area, and when you’re in such close proximity to the nation’s capital it’s hard not to be at least a little aware of what goes on there. But for me, like most people, what happened behind the scenes on Capitol Hill was always a murky concept. I knew the basics that everyone learns in civics or government classes, but beyond that my exposure was mainly filtered through the news (not always the most objective medium). As a student in college and grad school, I was pretty determined that I was going to be a researcher, but I also became involved heavily in science communication through my blog and activities with various professional societies. That’s what led me to apply for a policy position when I was finishing up my PhD, and I think it’s been a major factor in how much I’ve enjoyed working for GSA’s policy office.

As an “in-house” policy fellow, my experience differs a bit from the Congressional fellows (like the one sponsored by GSA). Instead of working as a staffer on the Hill, where I might have covered anything science-related for my office, I instead get to focus on legislative issues that directly concern GSA members: funding for basic research, energy and natural resource assessments, climate change policy and greenhouse gas regulation, and natural hazard mitigation and response.

 

A staffer’s-eye view of a briefing on carbon capture and sequestration in the Senate Natural Resources Committee room

A staffer’s-eye view of a briefing on carbon capture and sequestration in the Senate Natural Resources Committee room.

 

I attend and report on hearings and briefings on Capitol Hill, but I also help GSA work with coalitions that support the agencies that fund geoscience research, as well as arrange congressional visits for GSA members to share their science with policymakers. Keeping track of legislation and how it progresses through Congress (or not) is a great challenge, since it means I have to know background on not only the legislative process but the history of whatever agency, funding source or topic is relevant to the bills I’m following. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about a wide range of things that I might never have encountered in research – everything from what constitutes a critical mineral to how federal disaster declarations are handled on reservations.

Attending a “Constituent Coffee” at Senator Merkley’s (D-OR) office with Dr. Jeff Rubin, chair of GSA’s Geology and Public Policy Committee.

Attending a “Constituent Coffee” at Senator Merkley’s (D-OR) office with Dr. Jeff Rubin, chair of GSA’s Geology and Public Policy Committee.

 

 

Senator Merkley discusses emergency management with Dr. Rubin.

Senator Merkley discusses emergency management with Dr. Rubin.

 

One of the most important things I’m learning – and one that’s crucial to any science policy job – is how to “translate” between the language and culture of policy and those of geoscience. Scientists and legislators may have similar goals but very different approaches to achieving them, and miscommunication between us can be a detriment to getting policy enacted. I find it really satisfying to figure out how to frame a topic so it’s relevant and impactful for both sides of the divide, and it’s definitely something I can carry on to a research career. (Broader impacts statements, anyone?)

There have been other important lessons I’ve learned from my time in DC:

 

  • You can’t necessarily pigeonhole people on issues by party. My favorite example is the current chair of the House Science Committee. He makes no pretense about, for example, being extremely skeptical about anthropogenic climate change – nearly every science-related hearing begins with him and the ranking Democratic Member squaring off on the topic – but he is also an astronomy buff and has called multiple hearings about the future of space exploration. (He’s also got a space-themed tie collection.) The same can be said of almost every Member; there are specific things they are for and against, often depending on their district’s industry but sometimes it’s based on personal conviction, and you can’t necessarily predict which is which based on party lines.
  • Legislators are human. The fact that you usually only see them on TV or in newspapers doesn’t impart any kind of superhuman powers or infallibility; they’re mostly normal people who are really good at fundraising and convincing others they’re worthy of a vote. They have preferences and biases and senses of humor just like anyone else, even if they do get to use special elevators and wear fancy pins. They mess up as often as the rest of us, and they’re just as capable of doing great things.
  • Anyone can watch the process of government going on. Legislation gets written and debated in hearings, and they are almost all open to the public and broadcast online. (It’s a bit harder to go see the chambers in session, but that’s usually on CSPAN anyway.) Hearings can be alternately enlightening, aggravating, shocking, informative, boring, interesting, contentious and amicable, but they are almost always worth attending. After all, these are your elected representatives in action, and engaging in politics doesn’t end with voting!
  • Capitol Hill is essentially run by people in their twenties. Senior staff and members tend to be older, but many of the staffers in congressional offices are very young, sometimes right out of college. They work hard and cover lots of issues, so they tend to have a broad but shallow knowledge of things like science topics. However, I’ve never met a staffer who wasn’t at least polite, attentive and gracious. If you ever go on a congressional visit, these are probably the people you will speak with!
  • Some things move fast, some things move slow, and networking is how you keep up with them. Nowadays it can take years for a simple reauthorization bill to get through Congress. But when changes happen in a bill’s status, they can happen pretty quickly. There are lots of news outlets that follow science legislation and post up-to-the-hour updates on what’s going on, but where do they get their scoops? Networking. Know someone working in the relevant office and you’ve got the gossip on what’s happening next. The same goes for having an influence on legislation: when we take people on visits, we make the point that the personal meeting is often going to have more of an impact than an email or a letter. If someone in a Congressional office remembers that you’re willing to be a resource, they may turn to you when the next bill needs professional input.

 

Politics can be every bit as messy as your faculty (or committee, or club, or association, or whatever) meeting. We may see political gridlock in DC and wonder why Congress can’t seem to get anything done, but it’s often for the very same reasons that we dread our own planning meetings or faculty retreats: people have different opinions, different values, and different approaches to dealing with challenges. Legislators and their staff are only human, and they can’t be experts in everything. That isn’t to say Congress hasn’t created a lot of their own problems, but having perspective on the mechanics of the policy world has helped me understand how they got there.

Ultimately, I’ve come out of this experience firmly believing that all geoscientists – especially anyone who depends on federal funding for their research – should make an effort to be at least a little aware of how the political process operates, and how we can participate in it. We’re in a period where funding for basic research, particularly in the geosciences, is not only decreasing but sometimes actively under attack, and we have to be ready to think about why geoscience research is important and how we can justify spending money on it. And it’s not hard to take the next step: go on a congressional visit, become a resource for testimony at a hearing, or even just write a letter to your representatives letting them know what you want them to do.

As I trade my suits for hiking boots and t-shirts, I like to hope that I’ll still have time to practice what I preach. Rejoining the world of geoscience research will mean I have to put in a special effort to keep up with the latest appropriations bills or congressional testimony. But now that I know how all that relates to my next grant proposal, you can be sure I’ll be writing letters and going on visits as often as I can!

Jessica Ball, outgoing GSA Science Policy Fellow

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