Providing a Face for Science: 2017 Geoscience Congressional Visit Day

Dervla Meegan Kumar (DMK) and Sean McNally (SM) 

Earlier in September, Congress passed legislation that keeps the government funded through mid-December, allowing only a few additional months to finalize a spending bill for the 2018 fiscal year. Throughout September Capitol Hill has been abuzz with meetings and hearings as the House and Senate negotiate how to divide the discretionary portion of the federal budget. Discretionary spending covers programs that the government is not mandated to fund each year and covers programs ranging from defense to education to NASA and other scientific agencies. Congress can choose to increase the level of discretionary spending for a given fiscal year but must weigh the needs of programs versus taking on more debt before deciding to do so.

This spending bill will be the first test of how federal science agencies are valued within the 115th Congress. With a wealth of competing interests vying for a slice of the discretionary budget pie, it is vital to advocate for sustained, at a minimum, or increased federal funding for scientific agencies and grant programs. Yet this can be a daunting task for scientists who want to oppose cuts to such programs but are unfamiliar with the political process.

To introduce geoscientists to this process, the American Geosciences Institute (AGI) hosts an annual Congressional Visits Day (CVD), dubbed Geo-CVD. For the two-day event, AGI brings together geoscientists at all levels of their career to highlight the importance of geoscience to congressional offices. Representatives from organizations such as the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the Geological Society of America (GSA), and the American Meteorological Society (AMS), in addition to students and researchers at universities across the nation, were in attendance. The two of us attended as the face of ASLO. Politics are local, so we were organized by region into groups of four or five and scheduled to meet with the offices of local representatives and senators. Each group was also assigned a leader to help us navigate the political speak.

To prepare us for the meetings, AGI held a workshop the day prior to our visit to Capitol Hill. Speaking with policy makers is much different than with academics – on the Hill the punch line comes first and the details second. The “punch line” for these meetings is a specific “ask” that is meant to provide the congressional office member(s) with a clear message of why we are meeting with them. For us, the ask was: Prioritize funding for geoscience research and education programs in fiscal year (FY) 18.

The workshop further explained how to support the ask by framing our science with personal experiences. Every scientist present had utilized federal funding at some point in a way that helped shape his or her career, whether through fellowships that support themselves or their students or grants that fund their research or provide instrumentation. It is important to share these experiences in order to give a face to geoscience and demonstrate how funding impacts politician’s local constituents.

Hailing from different parts of the country, Sean, a New Jersey native, was placed in the New Jersey-Maryland-District of Columbia (NJ-MD-DC) group and Dervla, having spent the last four years in Pittsburgh, was on team Pennsylvania (PA). Our respective teams had unique schedules that led to different experiences. Below we reflect on our individual Geo-CVD experience.

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Figure 1. Team photos in front of the United States Capitol building the morning of day two of Geo-CVD (left) team NJ-MD-DC, (right) team PA with team MA-SC.

 

Perceived Notion(s) of Science Policy and Congress:

SM – I think that science is two parts conducting research and communicating the process and results to our peers, communities, fellow scientists, and our local and state representatives. If it is not accessible what’s the point?

Recently, I have been working towards a science policy-oriented career. However, my knowledge base in how appropriations are passed and maintained in Congress was limited to my schoolhouse rock days and my engagement in public broadcast radio on my commute into Boston every day.

The thought of participating in six scheduled meetings with various representatives and legislative staff members to communicate/lobby science on the Hill was a bit intimidating. I had a lot of questions: How do you even schedule a meeting with a representative’s office? How long do they last? What am I even going to talk about? Why is what I have to say important to them? A lot of these questions stemmed from inexperience dealing with Congress. I quickly realized the concerns I had were very similar to a lot of other participants which eased my nerves going into the CVD.

DMK – Likewise to Sean, the extent of my political engagement prior to this experience was limited. I spent a lot of time listening to podcasts about politics and reading the news, but I had no idea how to become a part of the conversation. Having been immersed in academia for the last seven years, the innate and functional value of geoscience just makes sense to me, so I struggled with the idea of having to convince others of this. I was particularly apprehensive about meeting with offices that have histories of voting against geoscience funding and/or environmental policies. I didn’t want to turn our message into a political one.

Geoscience Congressional Visit Day - Experiences on the Hill:

SM – My group (NJ-MD-DC) was lead by AGU Public Affairs Analyst and past AGU Congressional Fellow, Timia Crisp. The first part of our day started at the Hart Senate building at 9 am. We established and reaffirmed our talking points from our mock meetings from the day prior and we made sure our narrative was clear and concise. We were all pretty nervous and anxious but with Timia’s guidance, we were all prepared for our first meeting.

Once those first meeting jitters were out of the way, it turns out it isn’t as hard as I thought it would be to communicate the importance of maintaining and increasing science funding from the viewpoint of my own experiences.

By referring back to what we learned the day prior, keeping our supporting stories simple and concise, we were in a much greater position to connect to the staff members and representatives during our meetings. Not only was it important to make that connection in the meeting but also to continue the connection with a follow-up after we left.

All the staff members we met with were extremely understanding of the value of federal funding for both science education and outreach to the pipeline (workforce). When we left they requested we keep them informed, specifically in flagging any issues we are seeing with the grant-making process, amendment recommendations, bills and topics for floor speeches, innovation and how to talk about the impacts of innovation for our nation, and how they need more scientists at the table.

DMK – The PA group had five meetings lined up that day – one in the office of each of our local House representatives in addition to the offices of both of our US senators. That morning I felt confident walking into the Longworth building, the location of our first meeting, but lost my stride after entering into the representative’s office. The room was paneled with dark wood, the coffee table situated in between two leather couches in the reception area was adorned with the day’s political papers, and the assistants bustled about seeming very busy. I felt out of place by the formality of it all, and during the meeting found it difficult to interject my story into the conversation. Thankfully the more senior members of my team delivered our message and were pleased with how the meeting went. I vowed to seize the moment and be more vocal the rest of the day.

Our schedule alternated between House and Senate offices, so the walks across Capitol Hill gave our team time to prep and finalize specific talking points for the next meeting. The second meeting of the day was with a legislative correspondent (LC) in Sen. Pat Toomey’s office. Perhaps it was the Eat’n Park cookies Sen. Toomey had in the reception area, a familiar treat to Pennsylvanians, but something clicked and our team dynamic solidified. The LC expressed wanting to know more about flooding in Pennsylvania and possible urban planning strategies to mitigate the risk in the region, providing us with an opening to discuss all the ways federally funded research can and has assisted Pennsylvanians with these issues. Being able to offer an office-specific advice on issues they are concerned with clearly demonstrated the value of our field, and the LC seemed highly receptive to our ask.

This positive feedback only strengthened the team dynamic and our pitches really came together that afternoon. Some of the key topics we touched upon throughout the course of the day included hazard forecasting and management, infrastructure design and urban planning (e.g. green infrastructure), energy and natural resources, water quality, and regional job creation, but which of these topics were stressed in meetings depended on the interests and needs of the individual offices. Once we had learned the trick to finding common ground between our work and the office’s needs, the conversations flowed well and meetings were productive. Strong background research helped, but what really took it home was eliminating nerves and being able to converse personally with the staffers.

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Figure 2. Sean (left) and Dervla (right) in front of their representative's offices before their scheduled meetings on the second day of Geo-CVD.

 

New Perspectives:

SM The strongest take away from my Geo-CVD experience was from my meeting with the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (Environment Sub, Minority). Although this meeting was considered an informal discussion, compared to our meeting with House and Senate offices, it was the truest outlook on how science is used, fought for, and defended on the Hill.

The subcommittee on Environment within the larger House Committee focuses on all matters related to the environment spanning multiple federal agencies. We met with two professional staff members. One of the staff member's words really resonated with me. He expressed the idea of “focus or flounder”.  The political climate today is bleak for certain aspects of science, funding himself and the committee he works for has two options;  focus and push the importance of science within America, or flounder at the idea that we cannot move forward.

Science is meant to inspire us and we must focus our voices from different fields in order to maintain the structure that will give the next generation of scientists the opportunity to participate in science. The economy is derived from ecosystems. As scientists we must all lend our voice to empowering federally supported agencies like the EPA, NOAA, and NSF to ensure that pathways for science funding remain in the pipeline.

DMK – What I find myself mulling over the most from this experience is a comment from the Chief of Staff of one of the House office’s we met with. He remarked that, in his personal opinion, fellows with scientific backgrounds are the least prepared fellows on the Hill. This resonated with me especially because I felt firsthand that day what it is like to be overcome with the sense that you have a lot of catching up to do. Even though both politicians and scientists have the same desire to make the world they live in a better place, there are so many disconnects between how a scientist approaches an issue compared to the way a politician must go about things.

My team experienced bipartisan enthusiasm for funding the geosciences throughout the day, which makes me optimistic that there is common ground. However, after seeing the pace at which politicians operate, juggling issues ranging from frozen foods lobbies to religious rights to geoscience within an hour (and we did actually pass both of these groups in the halls of the congressional office buildings), it is clear that we cannot live within our own academic bubble and expect good science to reach Washington’s ears on its own merits. It is crucial to continue to show politicians how science is positively impacting their constituencies, and only through a sustained presence can we rise above the noise and truly make an impact.

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Figure 3. Sean pictured with Representative Leonard Lance (NJ-7).

 

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