November 2, 2015

Visiting My Legislators Was a Bit Like ‘The West Wing’

Posted by elandau

This blog post was written by Ryan J. Haupt, a paleoecologist working on his Ph.D. in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming. Ryan notes “I am not an expert in science policy but it is something I am deeply interested in it as a science communicator via my podcast and as a citizen reliant on the U.S. producing the cutting edge of scientific research.”

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a geoscience-themed congressional visit day (Geo-CVD for short; I’ve learned that the Feds love their TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms)). It was a fun but challenging day, and I was asked to write about my experience.

The visit began with training in D.C. It covered the basics of how Congress works and congressional funding for agencies like the National

Photo of Ryan in a meeting

AGU members Ryan Haupt (left) and Brent Silvis (center) with Rebekah Solem (right), staff member for Rep. Collin Peterson (MN-7).

Science Foundation (NSF, I wasn’t kidding about those TLAs) are appropriated. We were taught how to properly initiate and handle “the ASK.” Not a TLA, rather this is the part of the conversation where you bring up the reason for your visit: for us it was an encouragement to continue funding the geosciences via the NSF. The afternoon culminated in our specific groups practicing our forthcoming conversations with our ‘handler,’ the person who knew the Hill (local slang for the most prestigious of hills: Capitol Hill) and would be guiding us around the following day. This was the most intense part of the training. As much as I had thought in my head about how these conversations might go, sitting next to someone who has been through this before brought the intensity home. I did my best, fumbled through a few botched dry runs, and started to understand what the following day would really be like.

The day of the CVD I awoke early, showered, shaved, and put on a good suit; complete with tie and pocket square. OK, I actually got dressed, second-guessed the shirt I was wearing, asked my wife about it, then changed. I then hopped onto metro to get down to the Russell Senate Office Building. I was running a bit late, so I was moving swiftly to arrive on time. Did you know D.C. is humid? I knew that and yet I still thought it would work out if I hustled in the early-autumn heat. I made it through security and met up with my team with sweat literally dripping down my face, but with enough adrenaline to get me through round one of the day.

Round one was a bit tough. We were meeting with a Legislative Aide (LA, they’re not always three letters), which is common for these types of meetings. The LA’s specialty was not in geosciences nor NSF funding. Further, I wasn’t even a constituent of the district being served, so while I said my piece I worried that I wasn’t really contributing to the cause, but this was likely an unfounded fear. These meetings, however frightening they may seem in the moment, are about building relationships, establishing name recognition, and just generally being a reminder that the geosciences are a thing that deserves continued federal funding.

After wiping the sweat off our brows, both from the heat and the nerves, we ventured forth to continue our meetings. Most of the time we met with LAs, but because I’m from Wyoming, the least populated state in the U.S., we had opportunities to meet with some actual representatives from my state. We were told these meetings would go differently–specifically, representatives will talk about whatever they feel like talking about, which for me was far less stressful than worrying about things like “the ask.” That being said, I’ve been asked by a lot of family, friends, and others about what I’m going to do when I finish my Ph.D. (not really a TLA, but close), but being asked by a sitting U.S. Senator in their office was probably the most intense time I’ve had to answer that question to date. I really hope my answer didn’t derail science funding for the fiscal year. Fingers crossed.

AGU team with Hoeven

A meeting with Senator John Hoeven (ND). Left to right: Ryan Haupt, Sen. Hoever, Brent Silvis.

All in all, my experience participating in Geo-CVD was super fun, and may turn out in the end to be super productive. It was a bit like The West Wing, a lot of pointed conversations with really intelligent and interested people; definitely my kind of day. And I think that’s something worth emphasizing, no matter the politics of the person across the table from you, everyone is in that room because we have intelligence, passion, and want to get things done. It makes for a pretty great dynamic. I can’t promise to have shifted the course of science funding in the U.S. in just one trip, but as I said before, a big part of this mission is just being there, being pleasant, and being a reminder that we’re here and we matter. Developing those relationships with offices over time is where someone makes a difference. I’d encourage everyone reading to attempt the same, either on the Hill or from your e-mail account.