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January 2000

The Two Cultures

 Eileen McLellan

7:30 a.m: The sun is rising behind me. Before me, mist rises slowly from a Maryland wetland, and gold leaves drift down to the water’s surface. A few months ago, I stood here in waders preparing to measure water flow. Now I stand in high heels and makeup, clutching not a field notebook but the daily newspaper, en route to Capitol Hill.

As the American Geological Institute’s 1999–2000 Congressional Science Fellow, I have exchanged the world of science for the world of politics. Over the next year, I will report to you from this new world, and I hope to persuade some of you to make a similar journey.

In olden days, the exploration of new lands was motivated by the search for material riches. As one might expect from an academic, my current exploration is motivated less by material gain than by curiosity. In particular, I want to know what role science plays in developing public policy and how scientists can make their voices heard.

Each year several dozen scientists descend upon Washington, D.C., driven by the desire to contribute their knowledge and experience to shaping public policy and eager to learn the workings of the political process. The addition of the American Geological Institute’s fellowship last year makes earth science well represented. This year’s class of Congressional Science Fellows contains four geoscientists. As Washington neophytes, we are taken under the care and protection of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which has a quarter century of experience in training scientists to work with policy-makers.

AAAS serves as our interpreter in this  political world, which is foreign to many of us, giving us an almost anthropological tour of the federal government (a book by one former science fellow captures the anthropological side of politics in its title, Tribes on the Hill). A recurring theme in our two-week orientation was that scientists constitute one “tribe” and politicians another, and that cultural overlap between the two tribes is rare. As science fellows, we attempt to bridge both cultures, and this means understanding the different goals and means of scientists and policy-makers.

We learned our most important cultural lesson first, in a discussion on the American experiment in government. In our democracy, politicians play two roles: advancing the public (national) welfare, and representing their constituencies. Observers of the political process often speak of “the two Congresses”—a senator or representative spends the week on Capitol Hill developing national legislation and then goes home to address local concerns. A politician must represent constituents who are themselves often divided on issues, and find a way to reconcile local interests with the national good. These pressures, together with the short-term focus of our political process (requiring continuous accountability to voters), combine to produce a policy-making culture that values compromise, rapid decision making and personal interactions. As scientists, we have the opportunity to be part of “the two Congresses”—to contribute our technical knowledge to national policy-making and to express our opinions as constituents.

Each Congressional Science Fellow could choose to work as a staff member of a committee, focusing on the technical details of policy, or as a member of the personal staff of a senator or representative, having more direct involvement with constituents and the politics of building consensus “back home” in the state or district.

I am working in the office of Sen. Ron Wyden (D, Ore.), where I am engaged in both politics and policy. Sen. Wyden sits on three committees that address earth science issues: Energy and Natural Resources; Environment and Public Works; and Commerce, Science and Transportation. He also represents a state in which conflicts over resource use and protection are played out in a very real way. My earth science perspective on resource issues will prove valuable. Earth scientists are ideally trained to understand how to balance resource use and environmental protection.

My first project is to review recent progress in groundwater cleanup efforts at the Hanford nuclear weapons complex in southeastern Washington state. Contaminants from Hanford drain into the Columbia River, potentially harming communities and natural resources downstream in Oregon. This project, and another initiative on seismic retrofitting of public building in Portland, obviously demand my geologic knowledge. Nonetheless, my fellowship has also demanded my scientific perspectives on issues that stretch well beyond my scientific discipline. Much of my work so far has been on public land management, urban planning and salmon restoration.

The Congressional Science Fellowship provides both a chance to learn about a wide variety of policy topics and how legislation is developed and passed. I spend my days drafting legislation, talking with lobbyists and constituents, and always asking the question, “How does this affect Oregon?” The fellowship takes me a long way from wetlands and waders, but it offers an invaluable opportunity to make a difference in the broader world. I invite you to talk to me further about geoscience and public policy.

Eileen McLellan
McLellan, who will spend one year working on the Hill, is a professor of geology at the University of
Maryland, where she has created and taught courses on environmental science and policy. E-mail: <Eileen_>.

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