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 Published by the American Geological Institute
December 2000
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

Political Scene

Science Policy to Your Door

David R. Wunsch

Since 1974, scientists have been working on Capitol Hill through congressional science fellowship programs. Organized by AAAS and sponsored by science societies, the fellowships send scientists to work for a year on the staff of congressional committees or member offices. Four geoscience societies — the American Geological Institute (AGI), American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America and Soil Science Society of America — sponsor fellows.

Although a large percentage of fellows come directly from academia, AAAS statistics show that relatively few return to academic institutions. This trend leads to an unfortunate lack of information transfer between fellows experienced in public policy and their colleagues and students in the university community.
To promote a cross-pollination of science policy information, the AGI Foundation, which supports the AGI fellowship program, is also funding the AGI Fellows Outreach Program. Established during my term as the 1998-1999 AGI Congressional Science Fellow, the program provides a funding pool for travel that universities or societies can match, in dollars or in kind, to bring in former fellows as speakers.
The outreach program may spur interested students, faculty and professionals to consider career options in public policy. It provides an exceptional introduction to policy-making from geoscientists who have been on the front lines.
As the program’s first outreach fellow, I brought my presentation — “Geoscientists in the Public Policy Arena: A View from Capitol Hill” — to the University of Illinois, University of Kentucky, the State University of New York at Oneonta, the Colorado School of Mines, and Illinois State, Tennessee Tech and Central Michigan universities. I explained why more geoscientists need to work in Congress, and described my job as a staffer and how to become a better citizen-geologist. I shared anecdotes about life on the Hill. An enthusiastic audience at each engagement greeted me, which was a genuine surprise because most geologists consider getting involved in public policy with the same relish as changing a flat tire on a rainy day — a necessary task, but one no one wants to do.
As I traveled to different universities, I found that opportunities exist to spread the message about science policy in diverse and creative ways beyond delivering a specific speech that may or may not be well attended. For example, at the Colorado School of Mines, I participated in teaching a policy course for science honors students. Students enrolled in this class learn a detailed analysis of government and its effect on issues they might deal with as professional scientists and engineers. I lectured on parliamentary procedure and offered tips on which agencies or congressional committees disseminate specific information each student would need for a class project. One can only imagine the strides the geosciences could make in the policy arena if more geoscience departments enlisted similar comprehensive science policy courses — and used outreach fellows to add a perspective from the trenches.
A question I consistently encountered during my campus visits was: “Are there employment opportunities in public policy without having to go the science fellow route?”
Absolutely! Only a small percentage of congressional staffers have scientific backgrounds. And by and large, congressional offices are keenly aware of the importance of having trained scientists on staff to cover the ever-increasing scientific and technical issues that are debated in Congress.
One of the best ways students can test the waters of a science-policy career and get a foot in the door for future employment is to become an intern. Interns work on the Hill, with federal organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Geological Survey, or with groups working in science policy, such as AGI. During my time in Washington, I met several people who landed their congressional staff positions after making good impressions as interns.
AGI’s 1999-2000 congressional science fellow, Eileen McLellan, is ready to share her knowledge and experiences through the fellow outreach program. AGI invites universities and organizations to take this opportunity and bring science policy information to future geoscientists.

Wunsch served as AGI’s 1998-99 Congressional Science Fellow. He is the State Geologist of New Hampshire and an adjunct assistant professor at Dartmouth College. E-mail:

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Geoscience and Public Policy

AGI is pleased to announce an outreach opportunity for geoscience departments and societies interested in the role of the geosciences in government. Former AGI Congressional Science Fellows are available to lead public policy sessions.

Dr. Eileen McLellan served as the 1999-2000 Congressional Science Fellow, working in the office of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), where she continues to serve as an adviser on environmental and resource issues.

The AGI Foundation, which sponsors the fellowship, has provided limited matching travel funds to support this opportunity.

For more information, contact the AGI Government Affairs Program at 4220 King Street, Alexandria VA 22302-1502.

For further details, visit,
call 703-379-2480, or e-mail

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