May 12, 2016

Earth, Space, and the Hill: My Experience at the Intersection of Science and Policy

Posted by cbunge

Colorado Scientists

Team Colorado at the Capitol Visitor Center

By Megan Brown

When I first saw the announcement for the AGU Congressional Visits Day (CVD) with a specific call for scientists from Colorado, I was excited about the opportunity to get involved and learn more about the policy making process. My research focuses on induced seismicity, and since this is a topic that is on the minds of the public and policymakers, I thought I could contribute to AGU CVD in a unique way. I was thrilled when I was chosen, and soon after, I received the opportunity to apply for the AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) Workshop too.  The CASE Workshop is for undergraduate and graduate students to learn more about Congress, science policy, and effectively communicating science.

I arrived in DC and quickly relearned escalator etiquette (you stay to the right unless you are walking up/down the escalator – this is a big deal in DC), and why I needed walking shoes.  My week started with the CASE Workshop.  It was a little over two days of speakers, group activities, and networking, starting with a welcome reception for approximately 90 student attendees.

One of the most surprising things for me was meeting so many STEM students who love science, but are looking for other avenues than traditional academic or research jobs for their careers.  This was a repeating theme with the speakers and many of the students I met.  I was also surprised to learn that many of the participants struggled with asking their advisors for the time to go to a science policy workshop.  I didn’t experience this, since although my plan is to have a career in academia, my advisor was still very supportive of my attending these policy events (Thanks Shemin!).  I wanted to attend these events to learn more about science policy and communicating science, not because I want to leave the research track, but because I think scientists need to understand and be able to work effectively with policy just as much as politicians should understand and be able to work with science.  It’s a two way street.

My week continued with the AGU CVD.  AGU invited scientists from California, Colorado, New York and Texas to come to DC and meet with legislators from their states to advocate for the geosciences.  There was a team of three to four people from each state; well, Texas had two teams – I mean everything is bigger in Texas, right?  The first day consisted of a workshop at AGU headquarters, where we met all of the other participating scientists from a variety of backgrounds. We had a bit of training on how Congress works and how to have successful meetings with congressional staff members.  We were also able to plan our day on Capitol Hill with our individual teams.  Our main goals were to advocate for funding for science, encourage Representatives to be founding members of a bipartisan geoscience caucus, and to introduce ourselves as resources for the offices.

Team Colorado Capitol

Team Colorado in front of the Capitol!

The next day, with the three other scientists from Colorado and our awesome AGU liaison, I braved the halls of the Capitol (well, mostly the halls of the Rayburn, Longworth, Cannon, and Russell office buildings) and met with congressional staff of four Representatives and the two Senators from Colorado.  It was a fun day filled with walking; meeting busy but interested congressional staffers; more walking; an Amal Clooney sighting (for real); meeting with more staffers; meeting my district’s Congressman and his awesome dog; additional productive visits with staffers; and a little more walking.  The Colorado delegation of Representatives and Senators were great supporters of science, and it was wonderful to see the enthusiasm and creative approaches the offices are taking to continue that support.

The CASE Workshop and the AGU CVD helped me see the big picture.  Politicians need to consider so many different things when making a decision.  They do not always have the luxury of deciding based solely on science.  Prior to graduate school, I worked in environmental consulting, and I remember being frustrated we could not just do the work based on what was scientifically best.  We always had to have our client’s best interests in mind.  It is the same for our members of Congress.  We, as scientists, need to be accessible and helpful if we hope to have science inform our politicians and to have continued support and expansion of STEM work in the future.


Megan Brown is a Ph.D. student studying Hydrogeology at the University of Colorado Boulder.