Political Scene

Run for Office!
David Applegate

Geoscientists understand the importance of public service. Many of our colleagues are dedicated public servants at federal agencies, state geological surveys, public schools systems or local water authorities. Distinguished geoscientists volunteer their time to serve on federal and state advisory boards and on National Academy of Sciences panels that review government programs and activities. Geoscience societies have stepped forward to support congressional science fellows, sending geoscientists to work on Capitol Hill for members of Congress and congressional committees. A number of former fellows have stayed on and assumed key staff positions on Capitol Hill, at the White House, or with federal agencies, state surveys and Washington think tanks. Geoscientists have been high-level political appointees, running agencies and shaping policies. One even served as the president's science advisor.

These individuals are injecting key geoscience expertise into the policy-making process, and our community owes them a debt of gratitude. But advice only goes so far. We still must rely on others to take our counsel and - far more difficult to achieve - to take the additional step of becoming a champion for the geosciences. Time and time again, we find ourselves having to put out political brushfires set by those with different priorities, different values and a distinct lack of understanding of Earth and its environment. We need to be our own champions. That means we need geoscientists to run for elected office.

I can imagine the look of horror that may pass across readers' faces. Geoscientists become politicians?! For many geoscientists, the very notion of politics is unappetizing. They would much rather pursue their interests isolated from the political fray. Trouble is, we aren't isolated. Whether the issue is the teaching of evolution in public schools, inclusion of earth science in state curricula, resource management decisions that lack a firm scientific basis, or funding cuts to geoscience programs, the decisions being made directly affect us and our science. When we do not step forward, others do.

All politics is …

Appalled by the cost of seeking office and the corruption of money in politics? I am too. Fortunately, that's not an obstacle, because I want you to start local, where the costs are low and the needs great. Town councils, school boards, party precincts: the building blocks of politics. But don't take my word for it. Take it from an expert: Wally Ulrich. In addition to running a fossil quarry and being a fossil preparer par excellence, Wally is the former chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party. Wally knows politics almost as well as he knows Eocene fish. His advice is simple: Start in the local precinct where you vote. The person elected to serve as each party's precinct captain may be the last person left in the room - the post is not high profile. But these precinct captains are the ones who elect leaders at the county level, then the state, and on up to the national parties. They are the people who in turn decide which candidates to support. If we want our interests represented in the parties - Republican and Democratic - that's where we have to start.

Heading down an untrodden path is a daunting challenge, but here again fortune smiles on the geoscientist seeking elected office. Others have gone before, clearing the way:

The greatest source of political brushfires is at local and state school boards. In almost every state, evolution opponents are petitioning boards to teach alternative theories such as intelligent design creationism. It's not just about evolution. Would the Texas school board have dropped earth science as an option for fulfilling science distribution requirements if a geoscientist was serving on the board? (See Geotimes, September 2001). Probably not. Would the geoscience community at least have heard about that problem earlier? Absolutely.

What you bring to the table

Geoscientists have unique contributions to make at all levels of government. Rational thought for starters. But unlike other scientists, we have a built-in tolerance for ambiguity (plus or minus a million years - need I say more?) and are well accustomed to making decisions based on incomplete data. Our fields of study are closely related to practical issues that affect people's lives. The fact that we chose to study inanimate objects may not speak well for our interpersonal skills, but not all politicians are gladhanders, and what we lack in glibness, we can make up in gravitas.

Have I addressed all your objections? Good, then please take up this challenge. Run for better science education, run for safe drinking water, run for better environmental laws (yours to define), run for better land-use planning and smart growth. Just run!

Applegate directs the American Geological Institute's Government Affairs Program and is editor of Geotimes. E-mail: applegate@

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