August 23, 2017

District Days Series: “Is There a Future for Science in America?”

Posted by cbunge

This Bridge post is a part of AGU’s District Days Series. Throughout August, Members of Congress will be back in their home states and districts meeting with constituents. As a part of August recess, The Bridge will highlight voices of AGU members that have been engaged with their legislators both in DC and back at home. Check back with us next Wednesday to hear more stories of AGU members standing up for science! For more information on how to schedule your meeting with your legislator, check out AGU’s District Days website. 

I’m a mid-career geochemist at Boise State University, and I never seriously considered public policy stuff. Not until a graduate student asked “Is there a future for science in America?” And what hurt was that she didn’t ask “WHAT is the future…”, but “IS there [even] a future…” So I got worried, fast. Ultimately, I told her that senior scientists should and would do everything to make sure there IS a future for science. And that’s how I got into science policy – I felt like I had to follow through.

So… I started calling my legislators every day. I put their numbers in my phone to make it easy. Every (Science) Friday was “Congress needs to support science.” I tried to remember to say NSF/DOE/USGS/NASA/NOAA and EPA. Mainly because they support most geosciences research, but also because I’m worried about the future of NOAA and EPA. I also said some nice things – the consistent friendliness of my Congressman’s office staff and his detailed (and thoughtful) letters responding to my comments. Staff started remembering me.

In early April, I scheduled a (research) trip to DC in the middle of May and realized I could go talk to my legislators. Hey – an opportunity to prove I’m not a windbag! So, first thing, I contacted AGU and GSA. I knew I’d be a deer in the headlights if I didn’t. I reached Brittany Webster (AGU) and Kasey White (GSA), and Brittany helped me put together a simple (c. 2-sentence) science-centric request for a meeting. Requests are on-line and need to be short. A couple days later, I started contacting the 3 guys I’d been calling for the last 3 months. I set up 3 meetings, all for the same day.

Turns out that my legislators hold an “Idaho Breakfast”, on a Wednesday in the middle of each month. Some other states do this – it’s worth checking out. Because my meetings were scheduled for that Wednesday, I wormed my way into an invitation. And started to sweat. I didn’t really know what I had started.

                           Dr. Kohn with Senator Jim Risch (ID)

The most important thing was that Brittany helped me develop a focused 1-page flier to give to my legislators. My flier emphasized the importance of federal science programs for geoscience education. I put in a headshot and my contact info at the top, followed by 3 blocks of text, each with a picture, explaining what I do. My blocks were “Mineralogy and mineral resources”, “Water, soils, and carbon”, and “Wildlife Ecology”. I also listed all the faculty in each area as resources. Last, I added a block of text and a bar graph showing federal funding for my department (from our research office), especially federal sources and growth. I picked topics that I thought would resonate with Idaho politicians, basically mining, water, and natural resources, which are super important here.

When I got to DC, I *literally* started sweating because it was something like 95°! But I totally lucked out with the breakfast because on the way in, I met a woman who has attended many of them. She introduced me to each of my senators and my representative. Just like that, I got to give them my message in person. Plus they recognized me later in the day. If I did it again, I’d probably just walk up to them and introduce myself. No room to be shy in DC.

Each meeting was different. Brittany and Kasey went with me, which helped a lot. I met with a staffer in one office (45 minutes), one of my senators in another (15 minutes of agonizing politispeak), and a staffer in a third (15 minutes), which my other senator attended for about 2 minutes. That’s where the photo comes from. It’s actually in front of a picture on a wall for photo ops. Seriously.

I do feel like I reached them. Maybe only briefly, but they have my flier, and I followed up with them the next day. My hope is to develop some kind of longer-term relation where they feel like they can contact me for help with science issues.

We’ll see.

I plan to go back in October. It wasn’t as hard as I thought.

Dr. Matthew J. Kohn is a Professor of Geology at Boise State University. His research focuses on Metamorphic/tectonic evolution of mountain ranges, stable isotopes of vertebrate fossils for paleoclimate and paleoecology, and geochemistry of metamorphic minerals and fossils.