Political Scene

Becoming a Standard-Bearer
David Curtiss

Political Scene often encourages readers’ involvement in addressing specific policy issues, from funding for K-12 earth science education to support for a federal research program. A few months ago it went even further, suggesting (gasp!) that geoscientists consider running for elected office. Perhaps your reaction to these exhortations was much like mine: agreeing wholeheartedly, outraged that such obviously important programs were under attack, but never actually getting around to writing my elected representatives and sharing my views. Instead, fading into the crowd, I relied on the geoscience “community” to fight the good fight.

Unfortunately, communities don’t do anything; individuals within them do. And so by failing to act, I lost another opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of geoscience in today’s world.

Thankfully leaders in the geoscience community are bearing the standard. They come from different walks of life: academia, industry and government. They serve in professional geoscience societies, with geological surveys, or for the National Academies. Working a year on Capitol Hill as a Congressional Science Fellow, I have witnessed their leadership first-hand.

But these pioneers cannot work alone. A much broader involvement by geoscientists is needed. Influencing a policy means demonstrating its importance to an elected official’s constituents. As constituents ourselves, geoscientists are uniquely qualified to make this connection. Being a standard-bearer does not require testifying as an expert witness before Congress. Rather, it can mean providing leadership on issues where your expertise is relevant, nationally or within your local community. Few communities suffer from excessive leadership, and as standard-bearers we can have tremendous impact.

“Making an impact” and “showing the relevance of geoscience” are vague concepts. If we are to effect change, we need to act on specific issues or events. Obviously, countless issues that require solutions face society and the geoscience community. On any particular issue it is easy to slip into an “us versus them” mentality, but to be successful, a more useful approach is to be educational rather than confrontational.

The issue of data collection and storage illustrates this point. Scattered across the United States are numerous core repositories containing drill cores and cuttings from thousands of oil and gas wells. These repositories preserve unique records of the subsurface, but companies no longer wish to maintain them. Preserving these collections can provide tremendous educational and research opportunities. These cores can be reevaluated using new techniques and form the basis of student research. But preservation comes at a price. The value should be obvious to a geologist, but to a non-geologist these cores are just a bunch of rocks. Maintaining this valuable resource requires an extensive educational effort to demonstrate the benefits of preserving these cores.

Another critical challenge is preserving earth science education in primary and secondary school curricula. Increasingly, states are implementing policies that favor biology, chemistry and physics over earth science education in high school. Biology and chemistry are seen, with good reason, as particularly relevant to society. However, if a student is not exposed to earth science in high school, the chances of that student pursuing it in college are slim. Incredibly, the State of Texas, despite the petroleum sector’s historical and ongoing importance to its economy, has adopted such a measure for its science curriculum (Geotimes, March 2002). Surely this problem demands the involvement of geoscientists.

Involvement can take many forms. Letter writing is a common and effective tool. Letters should be brief and focused, and directed to the appropriate official, whether that official is the school board chairman, a Congressman or the president. Meet your elected official’s staff, and offer to serve as a resource to them. Become a Congressional Science Fellow, an experience I highly recommend, and take an inside look at the process. The truly daring should identify an opportunity to serve in elected office.

Embarking on a journey through the political landscape will be easiest for those who leave cynicism behind. Many view politics as one partisan fight after another, in which the nation’s interests receive short shrift with politicians and parties beholden to special interests. Obviously, we have a civic duty to be vigilant, and hold our elected officials responsible for their actions. But I believe the Founding Fathers understood that this process would be often scrappy, at times unsavory, and that they designed it accordingly. As Sir Winston Churchill aptly said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Despite frustration at the seemingly glacial pace of an endless debate within our government’s system, consider the more efficient but frightening alternative: government that changes course on a whim every election cycle. Democracy works because of debate, and relies on special interests to inform the process, highlighting both strengths and weaknesses of any proposed solution. Progress is only possible when an issue is debated vigorously.

Of course, not every bill that becomes law achieves everything its sponsor originally intended. Compromise, a word with an unjustifiably bad reputation, is the norm. Final legislation rarely satisfies fully the desires of any group, but usually delivers at least one step in the right direction. And as circumstances change, the decision is revisited.

All this talk of debate and compromise may not sound too appealing. Following this path probably means developing a few calluses, and results can often be elusive. An important factor, perhaps the most important, in any political success is persistence. Successful legislation often takes years to become law. It can mean waiting for favorable conditions so that compromise is possible. Demonstrating the relevance of geoscience requires similar effort. Every geoscientist has a responsibility to participate at least by supporting those actively engaged in the process. But this is the least required. The fact remains: We could use a few more standard-bearers.

Curtiss is spending a year working as a staff member in the office of Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.) as the American Geological Institute’s Congressional Science Fellow. Previously, he worked at the University of Utah’s Energy & Geoscience Institute. He can be reached at the Office of the Republican Conference, U.S. House of Representatives, 1010 Longworth Building, Washington, D.C. or by e-mail.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not reflect the views of Rep. Watts, the House Republican Conference, or the American Geological Institute and its member societies.

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