Political Scene

Scientist on the Hill: An Introduction
Larry Kennedy

Editor’s note: Kennedy is the fifth American Geological Institute Congressional Science Fellow, one of about 30 sponsored by science and engineering societies coordinated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As an undergraduate geology student in 1974, I ran for a seat on the Planning and Zoning Commission in my hometown in western Connecticut. My parents had been very active in local politics and government. My father was on the town’s Board of Selectmen, a small-town version of a city council. At that time, a controversy was building over the role of wetlands and the extent to which they should be preserved from development. Like many of my classmates, I wanted to “do something” to address environmental issues. And the local Democrats were looking for candidates.

It wasn’t much of a campaign. I signed on to the party platform at the local caucus and went back to school. In my hometown, where Republicans had an insurmountable lead in registered voters, I was actually running against fellow Democrats for one of the three minority seats on the seven-member Commission.

I lost the election but not my interest in how public policy is developed and implemented. While an undergraduate I considered a going on to law school. And my sense of public service has always been strong. So it’s not entirely surprising that in September 2002, I took leave from the graduate program in hydrogeology at the Desert Research Institute in Reno and found myself in Washington, D.C., to begin a year working on Capitol Hill as a Congressional Science Fellow.

After getting my bachelor’s in earth and environmental sciences, I began a long career in mineral exploration. Along the way I completed a Ph.D. in geology, specializing in geochemistry and petrology. In the late 1970s, it was apparent that our society’s demand for natural resources would continue and that we’d have to find ways of producing them that wouldn’t harm the environment. A postdoctoral study that I completed in 1987 assured me that the science could enable this goal. The positive attitudes of my coworkers convinced me that it could be done.

I served as a company representative to various regulatory agencies for environmental permitting and regulatory compliance. Like many other geologists, I began doing so as a project geologist. Drill programs are planned to minimize disturbance and avoid environmentally or culturally sensitive areas, and it makes sense for geologists in the field to be responsible for the environmental compliance and permitting of their projects. On more advanced programs, senior geologists and managers also become responsible for the information supplied by teams of geologists in support of environmental impact statements or feasibility studies.

In the course of my career, I worked on several major projects and was peripherally involved in two others. One of those may yet become a mine. The others, whose economics were as good (or better), will probably never become mines — certainly two never will. The chief obstacles were public and political opposition, not science or economics. As one project in Wisconsin advanced to the permitting stage, my daughter came home one day from fourth grade to ask me: was I the guy who was going to ruin all the wetlands in northern Wisconsin? The federal government purchased the development rights to another, the well-known New World project located six miles north of Yellowstone Park. The third became entangled in policy decisions stemming from the ongoing debate and controversy involving the 1872 mining law. All of these projects were affected by the poor environmental legacy of some historic mining activities.

In early 2001, a corporate merger interrupted my exploration career and gave me the opportunity to pursue other options. (If you haven’t been through a merger yet, trust me, you’ll hear the words “opportunity” and “options” a lot.) I decided to apply for the American Geological Institute’s Congressional Science Fellowship. The issues that have affected my career — those issues that arise when natural resource development conflicts with preservation of the natural environment — won’t be going away, and likely will intensify in the future. I wanted to participate in the process of supplying information to legislators, and to experience how different interests try to influence public policy. The Fellowship has provided me with a unique opportunity at a time when my career is at a crossroads.

Welcome to Washington

Following a month-long orientation I chose to work in the office of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Sen. Reid has been a strong supporter of the congressional science and engineering fellowship programs, and has a number of current and former science fellows on his staff. The Senator’s bipartisan reputation, his leadership position, and his success as a legislator, combined with the opportunity to work for my adopted home state, made the prospect of working in Sen. Reid’s legislative office very appealing.

I will be working on issues ranging from water and other natural resources to drought and climate change. I’ll devote a considerable amount of time to state and local issues involving public (federal) lands. The federal government controls over 87 percent of the state, whose communities are typically surrounded and even intertwined with public lands. The resolution of many local land issues literally requires an act of Congress. Discontent over some federal policies implemented to administer the high proportions of federal land in Nevada and other states in the Mountain West helped fuel the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s, a movement for greater state and local control of what are now federal lands. The rebellion flared up again in 1994 when rancher Dick Carver bulldozed open a road that had been closed by the U.S. Forest Service.

I joined Sen. Reid’s staff a month before the 2002 election and as the Senate considered 11 of the 13 fiscal year 2003 appropriation bills, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Resolution to Use U.S. Armed Force Against Iraq. The experience was like joining a school of fish, in which all the others know instinctively which way to turn at any particular moment.

With the hum of the office going on about (or over) my head, I started to become acclimated. I read up on various issues that I would be working on, and some, such as Social Security, that I probably wouldn’t. Soaking up this mysterious new culture, I watched proceedings on the Senate floor on the television on my desk.

I went to committee hearings and the Senate gallery, found my way about the Senate offices and through the subterranean corridors connecting them to the Capitol and House. I went to briefings and House or Senate committee meetings. Some performances were remarkably pithy. In the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) used two brief questions and only five minutes to establish exactly how two witnesses, Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, agreed on the way our nation should proceed with regard to Iraq, and how soon they thought we might have to undertake military action.

The 2002 election (for those of you who have been under a rock) turned the Democrats’ narrow majority in the Senate to the Republicans’ advantage, and gave me an instant lesson in how quickly political realities can change. Politics during the ensuing lame duck session of the 107th Congress anticipated the change to come in the 108th, as the Senate proved unable to pass the pending appropriation bills. In January, Senator Reid went from managing the Senate floor as Assistant Majority Leader or Whip to assuming a more reactive role as Assistant Minority Leader. Welcome to Washington.

The views presented here are solely those of the author, and do not reflect the views of Sen. Reid or the American Geological Institute and its member societies.

Support for the AGI fellowship is provided by the AGI Foundation. Send e-mail to Kennedy at

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