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Geotimes
 Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

 June 2000


Political Scene

Go Tell It on the Hill

by David Applegate

The secret is getting out. For a long time now, earth scientists have been finding the natural resources society needs, cleaning up and protecting the environment, studying natural hazards to help mitigate their impacts and supplying a sense of wonder as we explore other planets and learn more about the incredible history of our own. But general consternation has also plagued the earth science community because the people who ultimately make the decisions that determine how much earth science is used, where it is taught, and whether it is funded are not beating a path to our doors for our expertise and guidance.

Instead of waiting for that to happen, though, an increasing number of earth scientists are bringing the mountain to Mohammed. They are bringing their case - supporting the application of sound science to stewardship of Earth (mountains included) - to the imams on Capitol Hill. This spring saw a good burst of activity, but we must sustain it.

Appropriately enough, the state geologists were the first out of the blocks this March, coming to Washington as they do twice yearly to meet with Congress and the federal agencies. While in town, the Association of American State Geologists held a fine dinner, presenting their second annual Pick and Gavel Awards to Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), the only geoscientist in Congress, and to National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Rita Colwell. The awards recognize leaders who have made significant contributions to advancing the geosciences.

In early April, 300 scientists and engineers made the pilgrimage to Washington for the fifth-annual Science-Engineering-Technology Congressional Visits Day (CVD) and, as constituents, met their elected representatives and staff. Their shared message was the need for balanced federal investment in science, engineering and technology. At a Capitol Hill reception, Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) each received the George E. Brown Jr. Leadership Award for their efforts to double the federal investment in science.

More than 30 earth scientists representing 10 of the American Geological Institute's (AGI) member societies participated, meeting with a quarter of the Senate and several dozen House offices. Their messages were variations on a theme: the vital role the earth sciences play in many of the environmental, resource and natural hazards issues before Congress.

The Geological Society of America's public policy committee members timed their Washington meeting so they could participate in CVD. Several members from California visiting their senator's office were asked to review and comment on a draft natural hazards bill - an opportunity that would not likely have arisen otherwise. A delegation led by Association for Women Geoscientists President Maggie Toscano conducted a whirlwind series of visits to congressional offices for discussions of the current status of women in the sciences and the importance of federal support for science education.

An American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) delegation made a number of calls on both members' offices and committee staff. They left one of those visits with an invitation to testify at an upcoming hearing. The only catch was that the hearing was the next week. Fortunately, AAPG had already vetted position statements and could call on an active group of petroleum geologists with the expertise to address the issue. One conference call and many e-mail messages later, the testimony came together.

Thus, on April 12, AAPG President Ray Thomasson testified at a House Resources Committee hearing titled "Compromising our National Security by Restricting Domestic Exploration and Development of our Oil and Gas Resources." Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) said he would use the hearing to "focus on the alarming fact that, while our nation is one of the largest consumers of fossil fuels, it lacks a coherent energy policy." Members of Congress, notably House Majority Whip Tom Delay (R-Texas), administration officials and a number of non-government witnesses testified. Providing the view from the petroleum geology community, Thomasson stated that declines in domestic production of crude oil and flat levels of natural gas production are symptoms of declining opportunities for exploration, not a lack of resources to be found.

The same day AAPG testified before the House Resources Committee, AGI staff testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on VA, HUD and Independent Agencies, advocating increases requested in NSF's fiscal year 2001 budget. The testimony included a description of the earth sciences' first-ever Major Research Equipment request  - $17.5 million for Earthscope, a set of four projects to study the continental crust beneath North America (Geotimes, March 2000). The topic piqued the interest of the representative chairing the hearing, Rep. John Sununu (R-N.H.) - son of President Reagan's chief of staff and an MIT-trained engineer. Sununu, accustomed to sitting through many dry presentations, came alive with detailed questions. His interest is a good example of what earth scientists can find on the Hill if we just make the effort to share our stories.

Sustaining the effort

By bringing their mountain of expertise to Congress, earth scientists are getting the word out. The NSF and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) stand to gain considerably in the appropriations process now underway, but success will only follow if we earth scientists continue to carry our mountain to Capitol Hill and communicate what we have to offer. Just ask Oklahoma State Geologist Charlie Mankin - this is his 41st straight year of coming to Washington to make his case. Now that is a sustained effort!

Two recent initiatives hold promise for sustaining a communication link between earth scientists and legislators. We can only hope they have Mankin's staying power.

Last October, when the USGS initiated a series of Capitol Hill briefings addressing such issues as earthquake hazards in the San Francisco Bay Area and groundwater quality in New Mexico. Bringing in other organizations to help stage the briefings on a regular basis, the survey has taken an important step toward raising its profile with the legislative branch.

Earth science societies recently led the charge to establish the Congressional Natural Hazards Caucus, now up and running thanks to the leadership of Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and John Edwards (D-N.C.). The caucus plans to hold its first event in June, but its goals are decidedly long-term: raising awareness in Congress of the importance of preparing for and thus mitigating the effects of natural hazards. And to help them reach that goal, we certainly must not let the role of the earth sciences remain a secret.



Applegate directs the American Geological Institute's Government Affairs Program.
E-mail: govt@agiweb.org. AAPG President Ray Thomasson's April 12 testimony and that of other witnesses is posted at www.house.gov/resources/.
 

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