In 1973, two physicists, two electrical engineers, a mechanical engineer, a public health researcher and a biophysicist came to Capitol Hill as the first crop of congressional science fellows. This year, through the Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship program coordinated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), about 40 scientists and engineers are working on the Hill.
Sponsoring organizations fund a scientist or engineer to spend a year working on the staff of a member of Congress or a congressional committee. The program brings scientific expertise, scientist by scientist, to the Hill at no cost to Congress. And the scientists learn how the political and policy-making processes work.
Over its 28 years, the program has brought 693 scientists to the Capitol. Every year, the demand for scientists among Hill offices is more than the program can supply. Congressional offices prize science fellows, so much so that the new chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), has changed a rule enacted by the previous chairman that prevented Congressional Science Fellows from working for the Science Committee.
In 1977, the American Geophysical Union brought the geosciences into the program by sponsoring Yacov Haimes, who worked for the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and also for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He is now director of the Center for Risk Management of Engineering Systems and a professor of systems engineering at the University of Virginia. The Geological Society of America (GSA) started a program in 1986 and is now sponsoring its 15th fellow, and the American Geological Institute (AGI) this year is sponsoring its fourth fellow. In all, 40 geoscience “graduates” of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), GSA and AGI Congressional Science Fellowship programs are contributing their talents and broad perspectives to the geoscience community. The AAAS also sponsors its own scientists, and has brought geoscientists to the program. And the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA), in a consortium of agronomy, crop science, soil science and weed science societies, has sponsored an additional 20 science fellows.
Two offices have been particularly popular with geoscience fellows. Five fellows worked with the late Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.), former chairman of the House Science Committee. Five geoscientists have worked in Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s (D-Conn.) office: Murray Hitzman (GSA, 1993-1994), Tamara Nameroff (GSA, 1996-1997), Kai Anderson (GSA, 1998-1999), Christy Johnson (AAAS, 1999-2000) and current AGU Fellow Kirsten Banks Cutler. Joyce Rechtschaffen, who worked on environmental affairs in Sen. Lieberman’s office and is now minority staff director for the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, says “The Fellows were all terrific. They brought great perspective to the senators’ work and added a very important dimension to the office. They were invaluable.”
Eos, Geotimes and GSA Today have published accounts of fellows’ experiences during their fellowships, but for many, the real benefits began after they left the program and used their new skills in other spheres. Of the 40 geoscience fellows, eight now work in education, 21 in state, federal or policy positions, and 11 in business or consultancy. This network of former fellows, spread through many organizations, is a valuable resource for the geoscience community.
Following is a brief look at three former fellows — one in state government,
one in education and one in government relations — who have successfully
integrated their Washington experiences into different areas of the geosciences.
Getting geoscience knowledge to the right people
David Wunsch was the American Geological Institute’s Congressional Science Fellow from 1998 to 1999, working with the majority staff of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. “In retrospect, I couldn’t have picked a better choice,” he says. He considers his Washington experience invaluable training for his current position as State Geologist of New Hampshire.
[At left: David Wunsch became the New Hampshire State Geologist last year after working 15 years with the Kentucky Geological Survey. He was the American Geological Institute’s Congressional Science Fellow from 1998-1999, working in the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mining Resources. He earned his Ph.D. in hydrogeology from the University of Kentucky in 1992. Photo by Dena Wunsch.]
Wunsch was already well versed in the importance of the earth sciences to society before he was a fellow. His work on hydrogeological and geochemical problems for the Kentucky Geological Survey brought him into close contact with the practical implications of earth-science decisions. Working closely with the federal Office of Surface Mining, he examined the impact of large strip coal mines on water and the environment. He also dealt with water supply issues and helped draft legislation with the State Water Management Task Force and the Kentucky River Basin Steering Committee. Even with all this experience, Wunsch found that his time in Washington was “very intriguing and well worthwhile. It was one of the best years of my life.”
Understanding the legislative process and how to find information are Washington skills that Wunsch draws on regularly for his work in New Hampshire. He shares his expertise with other heads of state agencies and guides them through the labyrinth of legislation to find key phrases buried in omnibus bills and conference reports.
Thanks to his time in Washington, Wunsch can also find “hot issues” to include in the state survey’s programs. As State Geologist, he needs to be aware of what topics will be important in upcoming legislation, and what projects are likely to attract funding. He learned to read the policy and legislative winds, and he knows the right people to call. By “searching out the insight,” Wunsch says, he can be proactive and constructive in developing his plans for the state survey.
As a fellow, Wunsch adds, “I felt a lot of frustration about how information isn’t getting to the right people.” He is working to ensure that geoscientists address this problem. “There is a good reason why there is a p.r. [public relations] person in every Senate and House office,” he says, adding that each state survey could use an outreach person.
Some segments of science, particularly the medical sciences, receive great publicity and financial support, but other groups are ignored. Scientists, including the state geologists, Wunsch notes, foretold the energy problems now facing the nation, but their message was overlooked. “The earth science community needs to learn the lesson of getting information out at national and local levels,” Wunsch says.
“Moreover, we need to become more effective at educating the media about
the relevance of earth science to our everyday lives.”
Bringing the message to everyone
Jill Schneiderman is an associate professor of geology at Vassar College. She worked as a Congressional Science Fellow in the office of Sen. Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) from 1994 to 1995, the year Daschle became Senate Minority Leader.
[At left: Jill Schneiderman, pictured here next to Sunset Lake on the Vassar College campus, was a Congressional Science Fellow from 1994-1995 in the office of Sen. Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) before she joined Vassar as a professor. Before she was a science fellow, she was an associate professor of geology at Pomona College and had finished a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History, where she studied the record of Sahara Desert climate change in sediments of the Nile River delta. She earned her Ph.D. in geology from Harvard University in 1987. Photo by Dixie Sheridan/Vassar College]
Even before she started her fellowship, Schneiderman was aware of the societal relevance of the earth sciences. But while working in the Senate, she says, “I came to appreciate how, every day, I could relate [policy] issues to the earth sciences.”
Flooding of the Missouri River is a major concern to residents and farmers in South Dakota. Schneiderman used her geological expertise to advise Sen. Daschle on the most practical responses to the problem. She also addressed the interactions between geomorphology and forest health, along with many other earth science issues. And she listened intently to Senate debates, coming to understand how important it is for geoscientists to “make our connection to the Earth more obvious, as it underlies so much of what we deal with.”
Inspired by her fellowship experience, Schneiderman decided to do something concrete to make the connection between people and Earth more obvious to geoscientists and to the public: She devised and edited a major collection of essays that focus on Earth, its history and processes, environmental issues and what people can do to maintain a livable planet. The Earth Around Us was published last year and is already being used in classrooms around the country. Schneiderman deliberately aimed the book at a general readership. She wanted geoscientists to communicate the excitement and relevance of their science directly to the public. This perspective — embracing a much wider audience than a traditional academic volume would — comes from her fellowship experiences. “The book would not have happened without the fellowship,” she says.
Taking this perspective to her Vassar students, Schneiderman has developed a course on environmental justice and earth system science that she co-teaches with Virginia Ashby Sharpe, a philosopher. The course attracts students who otherwise might never encounter the earth sciences. Schneiderman uses the opportunity to introduce the students to scientific principles in the context of environmental policy and ethical issues. She draws on her understanding of the legislative process and the legal framework of environmental and resource issues to show the relationship between the earth sciences and many of the challenges society faces.
“The fellowship showed me the relationship of geology to so much of
the business of Congress … and the importance of speaking your mind.”
She left Washington energized, her faith in the democratic process reinforced,
she says. A faith that she has already translated into action through her
teaching and her advocacy for civil rights, and by reaching a significant
and broad audience through The Earth Around Us.
Peter Folger, GSA’s Congressional Science Fellow from 1995 to 1996, spent his year on Capitol Hill in the office of Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Folger returned to Colorado after his fellowship but is now back inside the Beltway as public affairs manager for AGU in Washington, D.C. “The fellowship is directly relevant to my current job,” he says.
[At left: Peter Folger, center, talks policy during a January meeting of the Congressional Natural Hazards Caucus, which he helped form. Now public affairs manager for the American Geophysical Union, Folger was a Congressional Science Fellow from 1995-1996, working in the office of Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). In 1995, he earned his Ph.D. in geological engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. After he earned his master’s in geology from the University of Montana in 1988, he worked as a geologist first for AMAX Exploration and then for the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado. Photo by Tim Cohn]
Folger is engaged in what he terms outreach and in-reach on behalf of the earth and atmospheric sciences community. The outreach program aims beyond the scientific community, mainly toward federal legislators, to show what geophysics is and why it is important to the nation. The in-reach program explains Congress and its actions to the scientific community and helps scientists to communicate with legislators and opinion makers at local and national levels.
“The fellowship was a crash course in how Congress operates, what is important to legislators and how science fits into what they do,” Folger says. “Science is only one issue to Congress, it is just one piece of information that Congress has to use as a part of a much bigger picture.”
Building on this knowledge, AGU and AGI — where the Government Affairs Program is headed by a former AGU Congressional Science Fellow, David Applegate — have taken the lead in developing the Congressional Natural Hazards Caucus. Headed by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), the caucus intends to make the country better prepared to deal with natural hazards. Folger says that few members of Congress would pay heed to isolated scientific research information on natural hazards. But, when scientific information is combined with input from the Red Cross, state emergency managers and the insurance industry, Congress members can more easily integrate scientific, economic, social and logistic strategies for coping with natural hazards. “We are highlighting why each senator should be helping institutions and individuals in their state to prepare for natural hazards,” he says.
The fellowship gave Folger an understanding of congressional priorities and needs. Congressional staff require reliable, unbiased information on science issues, he says, and they particularly like to get information from constituents — including members of the scientific community.
Fostering contacts between earth and atmospheric scientists and legislators at all levels links the outreach and in-reach elements of Folger’s job. To help its members, AGU has prepared policy statements on issues such as evolution and creationism, global climate change and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is monitored by seismology. AGU has also joined with other scientific organizations such as AGI, the American Chemical Society and the American Physical Society to prepare monthly bulletins on developments in climate-related research for staff on the Hill. These bulletins present items from the peer-reviewed science literature in a broader context but without the media hype or spin-doctoring of advocacy groups.
On a personal level, Folger left his fellowship year “much less cynical
than I thought I would be — in fact, more optimistic.” He learned that
bills don’t pass quickly, that the checks and balances in the system do
work, and that most people on the Hill are bright and energetic and want
to do what they believe is best for everyone. He left his fellowship eager
to build bridges between the scientific and legislative communities, he
says. And that’s just what he has done.