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February 2000

Political Naïveté

Sarah Robinson

Editor’s note: This editorial begins a bimonthly column for and about graduate and undergraduate students in the geosciences. It will offer student perspectives and career advice. Sarah Robinson, a graduate student at Arizona State University, served as an intern with the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program during the summer of 1999.

Most geology graduate students return in the fall semester with tales of exciting summer field work and insights into their research. I spent last summer doing some especially exciting, if nontraditional, field work as a science and public policy intern with the American Geological Institute. Using Washington, D.C., as my field site, I attended congressional hearings I had before only seen on C-SPAN and was exposed to the political process and culture. Although this summer didn’t advance my specific research, it gave me a broader view of the interplay among science, policy and society.

I have always been interested in how science is used by society and have been intrigued by the concept of “science policy.” However, I had only vague ideas of what that “policy” word actually meant. I quickly learned a more concrete definition as I and two other interns spent our summer days watching members of Congress debate issues that affect the geosciences, visiting the headquarters of science agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey, and attending weekly AGI seminars on policy issues. These activities exposed us, as future members of the scientific community, to the political process and the ties between science and policy.

I now realize how naïve I was about these ties and the realities of the political process. I was surprised by how many issues discussed on the Hill have ramifications for the geoscience community or could benefit from a geoscientist’s knowledge. As interns, we tracked the full range of earth science issues from the National Geologic Mapping Act, which provides funding for the USGS; to Superfund, meant to clean contaminated sediments and water; to deep geologic nuclear waste repositories; to climate change. Often, other people attending congressional hearings didn’t understand why I was there. They were convinced that geologists study rocks and only rocks. Many people are unaware that geoscientists do so much more. Consequently, people sometimes fail to look to geoscientists for information on issues where earth science knowledge can make a difference.

The summer was also a crash course in the nuts and bolts of how legislation is crafted and passed. I brought to the capital some of the frustration pervasive among my peers that useful legislation on important issues never seems to get passed. However, after learning that each bill must successfully pass multiple subcommittee, committee and floor votes, I now understand why only 10 percent of the bills introduced last year became laws.

The predominantly black-and-white view I have of the world (which probably comes with being 24) incorporated a few more shades of gray last summer. I realized that many seemingly simple political issues are, in reality, disarmingly complicated. Take the Superfund reauthorization legislation, for example, which has been languishing in committee for the last eight years. What keeps a bill designed to clean up the toxic sites that degrade human and environmental health from becoming a law? It is not the bill’s stated purpose that derails its legislation. Rather, it is the details of its implementation. Congress must decide who is in charge of the cleanup process and who pays for it, bringing up two of the most controversial issues in our country’s history: state vs. federal power, and taxes.

After spending a summer on the Hill, am I still frustrated with the system? Yes, but that frustration is now tempered with understanding. Do I think every geologist needs to be directly involved in policy issues? Of course not, but I would argue that every geologist is affected by policy. Considering only the basic, mercenary issue of funding, Congress has a large effect on our community because it doles out money to the agencies that fund our research.

I left Washington, D.C., in August as a geoscientist more aware of the many important ties between policy and science, and with a more detailed understanding of the realities of the political system. The geoscience community can only benefit as more of its members are exposed to “science policy,” as policy affects all of us in varying degrees. My internship was an amazing experience and I would recommend it to anyone who is at all curious about the important realm of science beyond research.

Robinson is earning her doctorate in geology, with a focus on geomorphology, from Arizona State University. To comment on her column, send e-mail to

For more discussion of geoscience and policy, visit the Web site of the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program. Go to

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