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  Geotimes -August 2008 - Political Comment

Opportunity in Change: Telling the Next Administration What it Needs to Know
P. Patrick Leahy

Jan. 20, 2009, is an important date for all Americans. It is also an important day for the geoscience community. A new presidential administration will come to power, setting an agenda that will hopefully recognize the importance of the geosciences in supporting policy decisions that have a profound impact on the everyday lives of all citizens. Never have earth science issues been so visible. The next administration probably represents the best opportunity in a generation for the geosciences to be heard by federal decision-makers, regardless of which party wins the White House.

To take advantage of this opportunity, the American Geological Institute (AGI), which publishes Geotimes, is working with the geoscience community through its 44 member societies to craft the key geosciences message for the next administration. With so many competing interests vying for attention, our message must be concise, actionable and clear, and must provide a lasting value to the nation. Waving an abstract flag to encourage the president to support the geosciences — or science in general — will bring about no change; rather we must have specific recommendations that are meaningful to policymakers.

We have identified several geoscience-related areas that warrant attention, including climate and energy, water availability and quality, waste treatment and disposal, natural hazards, infrastructure modernization, raw materials, and workforce and education. We will frame these issues for the next administration as policy questions that the president and his staff themselves will likely ask. For example, in the case of natural hazards, we would ask and then answer a question like, “How will we mitigate hazards and provide a safer environment for all?”

These topics are all interrelated to a degree and require the advancement of geoscience knowledge through both applied and basic research, monitoring and interpretive studies. However, one of the most interesting parts of coming up with our recom­mendations may be to identify how these topics relate to one another. For example, it is impossible to address climate or energy without understanding the implications of policies focused on carbon capture and sequestration or carbon trading (both areas of interest in the current Congress). The new administration also needs to recognize that energy sources in the future will change, giving rise to issues such as the disposal of nuclear waste and the impacts of increased biofuel production on water availability, food sources and soil, for example. Additionally, the administration will need to understand just how much and in what form the U.S. and the world hold hydrocarbon reserves, especially the emerging sources such as tight gas, coalbed methane and hydrates.

Science education is another critical issue. Although new legislation such as the America Competes Act recognizes the importance of a highly skilled scientific and technical workforce in the future, we need to make the case that these policies must include the geosciences. In addition to supporting higher education, policymakers also need to be informed about K-12 education issues. As the new administration considers changes to No Child Left Behind, geoscience educators must speak up.

Over the next few months, we will draft materials that expand on the issues already mentioned, making recommendations in a policy context. Such recommendations could include: Increase funding for research on potential impacts of climate change; fully implement the Advanced National Seismic System as part of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program; and include inquiry-based teaching of earth science in K-12 education as an element of No Child Left Behind. By no means do these examples define the scope of the policy recommendations, but rather they exemplify the focus that the profession can bring to the new administration.

On behalf of the profession, AGI will produce a brief document and deliver it to the appropriate campaigns before the election. This document will also be sent to Congress and even state offices, as the recommendations may be applicable at a state level. We of course entreat all parties in the profession, including the societies, to promote the geoscience message and policy recommendations when possible. Hopefully many groups will further enhance the overall geoscience message by focusing on topics that are of specific interest to them. Perhaps most exciting, however, is that for the first time, we may have a unified geoscience plan and the opportunity to influence a new administration and policymakers early in their terms. Let’s make sure that the geosciences stay relevant!

Leahy is the executive director of the American Geological Institute and publisher of Geotimes.

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