November 12, 2014

A Reason for Optimism

Posted by Nick Saab

Chuck Podolak and Laura Sherman are AGU’s 2014-2015 Congressional Science Fellows (CSF’s). For more information on the CSF program and to apply for one of two 2015-2016 CSF positions, visit our website.

Congress runs on coffee – and as new congressional fellows we do too. Every few days the two of us make a point to get together for a cup. Instead of sitting around and talking we take a “coffee walk” which involves wandering a lap around the basements of the Senate office buildings. These aren’t the majestic high-ceilinged, granite-floored hallways inhabited by senators, but rather the small corridors housing the clerks, plumbers, barbers, printers, police, librarians, mechanics, researchers, and cooks that keep the large institution up and running. Like the unseen support staff operating beneath the Senate offices, the legislative staff working in the background for each Senator, Representative, and Committee are an impressive group that should give you reason for optimism.

We are working on similar issue portfolios in the offices of western Senators, Chuck for Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Laura for Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO). Although Senators disagree on many policy issues, in our short time on the Hill, we have seen staff-level relationships among offices that are professional, respectful and productive. There is near constant communication among staffers in personal offices, committees, and even across the Hill to the House. It is this communication, which is often across the aisle and bipartisan, that allows legislation to be passed, oversight of agencies to occur, and constituent concerns to be addressed. This is certainly a political institution, but we have found that beneath the rancor emphasized by the media is an impressive army of staffers who are pursuing opportunities to address common goals. These discussions and compromises arise through relationships and friendships fostered by formal and informal networks and groups.

We are fortunate to belong to one of those networks: the AAAS Congressional Science and Technology Fellows. This group consists not only of the 33 fellows in our class who are sponsored by different member societies, but also of a vast number of former fellows, some of whom have remained on the Hill as Congressional staff. This is a very diverse group of intelligent scientists with expertise in a broad range of fields including earth science, sociology, psychology, astronomy, chemistry, and mathematics. Who knew that we would have immediate access to a veterinarian with a specialty in global infectious diseases when the Ebola virus arrived in the U.S. this fall?

As a group, we gather formally during AAAS-organized professional development events and informally for weekly lunches, happy hours, and movie nights/potluck dinners. These interactions allow us to learn about other scientific disciplines, different experiences on the Hill, and upcoming events of interest. They also allow us to improve our communication skills with people who do not share our political beliefs or who are working in offices with very different priorities. It is this high-value human currency that is of critical importance to reaching successful bipartisan compromises.

Of course, we are still new to the Hill, and perhaps naive, but our experiences with Congressional staff in our offices, other offices, committees, and within the AAAS Fellows network give us hope. There truly are smart, hard working, dedicated, and friendly people working in Congress. There is also an appetite for what a diligent scientist can bring to the process of crafting and analyzing legislative options. Thus far the fellowship experience has been unlike anything else available to scientists and we are thrilled to be onboard.  If you are interested in policy or the inner workings of government, come join us and learn first-hand that there are good reasons for optimism. At the very least, you will grow to love coffee and wandering through the literal and figurative bowels of the U.S. Congress.

Chuck Podolak and Laura Sherman
AGU/AAAS Congressional Science Fellows