Geology has precious little respect for political boundaries. Faults cross state lines, aquifers flow beneath borders, and the geologic processes at work in one nation — volcanism, desertification, or contaminant transport — can easily have consequences for others. Electronic communication networks and the ease of global travel have made international scientific collaboration and research projects the norm at universities. The large energy companies have all but lost their national identities, so extensive are their overseas operations. Our geoscientific societies reflect these trends. Many with the word American in the title have memberships that are a third to half international.
The policy issues relevant to the geosciences are also global in applicability if not in scope: environmental protection, resource development, natural hazard loss mitigation, land-use planning, and the need for adequate research funding and geoscience education. Yet when geoscience societies engage in public policy activities, the political boundaries necessarily reassert themselves. As a result, societies based in the United States have focused their policy efforts on the U.S. government. But given the increasingly international composition of society memberships, that focus is at best limited and at worst parochial.
One of the biggest hurdles to broadening these policy activities is
simply a lack of knowledge about the ways science and policy are intersecting
in other countries, and a sense of which issues require the most attention.
Last year, the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) asked the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program to survey the union’s national members about the policy issues they thought were most important, and about what activities they were undertaking to address them. It seems the role earth scientists were playing was usually quite limited.
Based on the survey, IUGS has established a Working Group on Public Affairs to share information on geoscience-related public policy activities around the globe. As chair of the working group, I welcome suggestions for how it can be most effective. Two activities that readily present themselves are highlighting success stories that can be adopted in other countries and sharing position statements developed by one society but applicable to others.
A good example of a success story is the active involvement of the Geological Society of London with the British Parliament to form an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Earth Sciences. Similar to a caucus in the U.S. Congress, this entity provides legislators with access to earth science expertise. According to an information sheet put out last year, “the group has already met to hear presentations on geologically induced disasters and their consequences, and to consider how people could be made more aware of natural hazards, how we can prepare for such disasters and how can we best deal with the consequences.”
In Canada, science and engineering societies formed the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering in 1995 to support Canadian science and technology programs and improve the use of science in governmental decision-making. The group holds monthly “Bacon and Eggheads” breakfasts in Ottawa for legislators and the press to hear from scientists about research related to important policy issues like climate change. The group also hosts presentations by senior science managers from other countries and corporations who talk to Canadian government leaders about “best practices” that could be adopted in Canada. (For more on this topic, see a story in the April 1999 Geotimes by James Franklin, former chief scientist of the Geological Survey of Canada and an instrumental force in developing the partnership.)
Can successes in one country be translated in other countries? Absolutely. AGI participates in an annual Science-Engineering-Technology Congressional Visits Day (CVD) event that brings several hundred scientists and engineers to Washington for briefings and visits with their representatives and senators. Two years ago, the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies adapted the CVD materials to create Science Meets Parliament Day. They even borrowed the CVD logo, replacing the Capitol dome with the Australian parliament building in Canberra. Nearly 200 scientists met with Members of Parliament, including cabinet ministers. Switzerland recently invited several former U.S. Congressional Science Fellows to visit their parliament, which is developing a similar program to place scientists on legislative staffs.
Societies such as the American Geophysical Union and American Association of Petroleum Geologists have developed statements that reflect the society’s views on important geoscience-related public policy issues. Such statements show a united front and provide the society’s members, both U.S. and international, with tools to interact with legislators.
Although some of these statements are U.S. specific, many reflect concerns that are universal. Natural hazard mitigation is one example, government investment in the earth sciences is another. Several geoscience societies, AGI included, have position statements on the teaching of evolution, opposition to which is by no means limited to the United States. Active opposition movements can be found in Turkey, Australia and Estonia.
All geoscientists can gain from sharing information and experiences across political boundaries. There is no universal formula for convincing governments to invest in the earth sciences and to fully inform decisions with the best available geoscience information. The most common shared experience so far is frustration with the degree to which each nation falls short of achieving those goals.
By sharing the keys we have available to us, we can try as many as possible
until we find one that fits. In doing so, we can do our part to erase some
of the boundaries that separate us -- in favor of the planetary destiny
For more on these issues, visit the AGI Government Affairs Program website at www.agiweb.org/gap.