October 22, 2014

Congress and Me: A Scientist in DC

Posted by cbunge

This past September, I participated in the Geosciences Congressional Visits Day (Geo-CVD) sponsored by AGU. As public support for science is waning, I have realized that we as scientists really need to step up our game on communicating, both with the public and with policy makers. Obviously we are versed in selling the importance of our science to our peers, but we need to do the same for the audience that really matters, the people that are supporting our research financially. It is our job to tell them how geoscience research supports public safety, security, drives innovation, and spurs economic growth.

A few years ago, I started with the public. In collaboration with a NASA Educator Resource Center, I developed an educator training program that could be used in the classroom to teach students about the Sun and space weather. Beyond the “wow” factor of observing the Sun with solar telescopes and learning lots of cool science, we really like to emphasize why we need to understand what’s going on: since we are so reliant upon satellite-based technologies and the power grid, we need to be prepared for activity from the Sun that can disrupt that infrastructure.

And that was the message that I took to Capitol Hill.

AGU prepared us for the Geo-CVD with a webinar a couple weeks before the event and a workshop in DC prior to visits. These included information about what to expect in our visits and gave us an opportunity to practice what we were going to say during our short visits that would really drive home our messages. My team included Dr. Everette Joseph from SUNY-Albany, Lexi Shultz, AGU’s Director of Public Affairs, Carissa Bunge, AGU’s Public Policy Intern, and myself from West Virginia University. Our schedule included meetings with staff from both West Virginia senators’ offices, two New York representatives’ offices, and one New York senator’s office. During the workshop, we discussed how to connect our messages together and how to tailor our message appropriately for each visit.

Our first visit of the day was with the staff in Senator Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) office. Knowing that Senator Manchin’s focus is economic development in the West Virginia, I really drove home the message that my research was bringing innovation to the state, that the funding was supporting the jobs of myself and my research group along with the education of several students, and that the federal funding that supports my position allows my husband and I to live and raise our family in West Virginia. We got a positive response from the staff members and suggestions for future interactions with the office.

Our second meeting was with the staff of Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). Given that Senator Rockefeller has been a champion of science and is retiring at the end of this term, we discussed with his staff what we could do to help find new proponents of science funding. This was also the focus of our conversations with the New York members’ staff people as they have also been supporters of science funding. Thus, we asked what more we could do to help.

We did get to have one unscheduled meeting by stopping into the office of Congressman David McKinley (R-WV). While Representative McKinley has been supportive of science funding in general, the House has stipulated that increases in NSF funding should not benefit the Geosciences and Social and Behavioral Sciences directorates. We took this opportunity to describe the benefits of geoscience research to public safety and security as well as economic innovation. Dr. Joseph also described the importance of interdisciplinary research between social scientists and geoscientists to better understand how people respond to information about natural disasters.

Overall, my participation in Geo-CVD was a positive experience. I need to be sure to follow up on the connections that I have made. I also need to recruit my fellow scientists to get more involved as well. Members of Congress and their staff get requests for funding from all kinds of different interest groups. I encourage you to contact your representatives and participate in Geo-CVD, or similar opportunities, in the future.

Amy Keesee is a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at West Virginia University. Her current research focuses on plasma physics of the magnetosphere.