Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences
It’s inevitable that the first article for
Geotimes by each new Congressional Science Fellow relates to the
positively awesome and sometimes overwhelming process of making public
policy. This missive is no exception. My adjustment to Washington, D.C.,
has been easier than for most other fellows, as I have lived in the capital
for more than two decades. My proximity to the nation’s seat of power and
my inability to feed a growing political habit fueled my motivation to
apply for a fellowship in the first place. I figured that a year in the
halls of Congress would cure me. To the contrary, my first several months
on the job have only whetted my appetite.
My fellowship has already altered how I think. I once viewed science in terms of disciplines and projects. I now must work with “issues.” I am no longer a hydrogeologist specializing in hazardous waste management — I am now a legislative aide helping to craft legislation on a national energy policy, or sustainable development, or a thousand other matters that affect the American public.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) coordinates the fellowship program and provides funding for a few dozen scientists who work on Capitol Hill or at federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and and U.S. Agency for International Development. Professional societies such as the American Geological Institute (AGI) sponsor their own fellows, all of whom are coordinated through AAAS. This is the third year that AGI has funded a Congressional Science Fellow.
I started my fellowship in August. Two weeks of orientation lifted me out of my comfortable and familiar world of consulting and landed me in the middle of a maelstrom of jargon, vaulted ceilings and procedural machinations. From orientation, the new class of fellows, armed with dozens of resumes, comfortable shoes and two weeks of Capitol Hill orientation, went out to find jobs. I was fortunate to find a home in the office of a freshman congressman, Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat who represents New Jersey’s 12th district. Holt is a physicist and one of the few scientists on Capitol Hill. He has the distinction of being the only former AAAS fellow who is a member of Congress. After a tough re-election campaign, he will be starting his second term as I begin my first.
Although central New Jersey residents may not immediately recognize how my being a hydrogeologist will help them, over the next session I hope to support Holt’s work on protecting the environment and promoting open space, addressing transportation issues and preserving the quality of life for his constituents. Furthermore, the congressman has encouraged me to take my own initiative identifying issues in which I have a personal interest, such as a national energy policy, promoting biotechnology and limiting nuclear weapons.
My mission for the coming months is twofold: to use whatever tiny influence I have over the next year to imbue public policy with sound science, and to learn as much about the legislative process as possible and share that knowledge with other members of the scientific community.
And what is the scientific community’s responsibility in the national discourse of public policy? Members of Congress must not only legislate for the overall good of the country, but also must serve the everyday needs of their district or state constituents. Constituents are often heavily invested in a few issues that directly affect them or their families, but they lack strong convictions about most other policy concerns. Consequently, politicians naturally respond to the constant tug and pull of their constituents by proposing legislation that has popular support. But politicians may not always make decisions that reach beyond the limited, parochial perspective of their district or state. This makes for good politics, but often for weak science policy.
Medical research funding is a good example. There probably is not a single U.S. politician who does not support funding for medical research, such as finding a cure for cancer. Indeed, almost every American has a family member or friend who has suffered or is suffering from this terrible disease. The legislative impact is that the government spends half of its civilian research and development budget on health research. For three years in a row, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have received a 15 percent increase in funding from Congress, yet surveys show that this level of spending does not necessarily translate into an improvement in perceived quality of life. At the same time, lopsided funding toward health concerns diverts money from the basic science programs that, in the long run, support medical research and advances.
Harold Varmus, the 1989 Nobel Laureate in medicine and a former NIH director, made the case in an Oct. 4 op-ed piece for The Washington Post. Medical research, he said, relies on other basic sciences, such as physics, mathematics and chemistry, to produce the tools, instrumentation and analytical methods that support medical research. These sciences — what Varmus calls the “vanguard of medical research” — are chronically under-funded. While politicians often focus on supporting popular programs, the scientist with a broader perspective can recognize funding disparities. Carefully framed policy can foster a crucial balance between funding popular legislation and supporting basic science. It is in this area that I hope to make a difference.
The 39 Congressional Science and Technology Policy Fellows in the class of 2000-2001 aren’t the only scientists who can make a policy impact. Every scientist bears a responsibility to occasionally poke his or her head out of the office and assume a more global role to promote good policy choices based on sound science. Let your representatives know what is at stake and help them to prioritize conflicting agendas. Good science need not be sacrificed on the altar of political necessity.