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Political Scene

Endowing the AGI Congressional Fellowship
David Applegate

We have all heard the chestnut attributed to Mark Twain: “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” Just so, complaints abound about the lack of scientific data and understanding that goes into public policy decisions. But when it comes to the U.S. Congress, the scientific community is doing something about it by the most direct means possible: sending their own to work as congressional staff. That is the basic idea behind the congressional science fellowship program, initiated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1973 and now celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Each year, scientific and engineering societies sponsor roughly 30 congressional fellows. Within that total, the geosciences are represented by the American Geological Institute (AGI), the American Geophysical Union, the Geological Society of America (with the U.S. Geological Survey) and the Soil Science Society of America (with other agricultural science societies).

After an intensive September orientation run by AAAS, fellows seek placement in the personal offices of senators and representatives or in congressional committee offices. With their stipends paid by their society sponsor, they spend a year working as a professional staff member, providing their scientific knowledge and expertise while gaining invaluable experience in how the political process works.

The AGI fellowship draws on the entire breadth of the geoscience community. Minimum requirements are a master’s degree with at least three years of post-degree work experience or a Ph.D. at the time of appointment. And fellowship candidates must be a member of an AGI member society, a requirement demonstrating their involvement in their profession. Indeed, an important aspect of the fellowship is giving back to the geosciences — what you can do for your community.

The value of the fellowship continues long after the year is out. Over the years, congressional fellows have gone on to take leadership roles in federal agencies and top staff positions on Capitol Hill, serving as scientific ambassadors at the highest levels of government. Others take their policy experience back into the scientific community. AGI’s former fellows have gone into academia, the private sector, and state and local government service. Thanks to a post-fellowship outreach program initiated by 1998-1999 fellow David Wunsch (now the New Hampshire state geologist), past fellows are available to speak at universities and geoscience societies on a matching-cost basis. Their example encourages others to become more active citizen-scientists.

The funding challenge

Although the congressional fellows have received rave reviews from their employers in Congress and gone on to provide important service to the nation, one thing has remained elusive: permanent funding. It takes a major financial commitment for societies to sponsor a fellow. AGI’s first attempt at fielding a fellow took place nearly 20 years ago, cobbling together funds donated by member societies. Unfortunately, the program could not be sustained beyond the first year, and it was over a decade before the next AGI fellow would arrive on Capitol Hill.

When the AGI Foundation launched a fundraising campaign to support a congressional fellowship in 1997, then-chairman Tom Hamilton and his fellow trustees ensured that this would not be a one-fellow affair by raising enough corporate support for an initial three-year period. Again in 2000, the foundation stepped forward for another three-year campaign. But mega-mergers in the petroleum sector and the tough economy made it clear that keeping the program going in this manner would be very difficult. What was needed was an endowment so that the fellowship would be funded in perpetuity.

The notion of an endowment was followed in quick succession by recognition of the man for whom the endowment should be named: William L. Fisher, the Leonidas T. Barrow Chair in the Department of Geosciences and director of the John A. and Katherine G. Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas, Austin. The choice was an obvious way to recognize Bill Fisher’s outstanding service to the nation, his home state of Texas and the geological profession.

Honoring Bill Fisher

For three decades, as director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, Fisher was the state geologist of Texas. At the national level, Fisher served as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Energy and Minerals under President Ford. Over several administrations, he has been an advisor to the president and secretaries of Energy and the Interior, and he has chaired numerous National Research Council committees and boards.

Fisher’s record of government service is matched by his service to the geosciences, including the presidency of AGI and three of its member societies as well as key roles in many others. During his AGI presidential year, Fisher had the vision to establish the institute’s Government Affairs Program to serve as a voice for shared interests of the geoscience community in Washington.
For years, he has been a strong proponent of the congressional fellows program as a means to foster greater involvement by geoscientists in the policy arena.

At this time, almost $1.5 million has been raised in support of the Fisher endowment, thanks to a series of major donations led by the late John A. Jackson who gave $500,000 to honor his friend. The AGI Foundation is seeking to raise more than $2 million so that the endowment can fund one and possibly two fellows plus support costs every year.

The Fisher endowment is the first of its kind among all the many scientific and engineering societies that have supported fellows over the year. We can only hope that the generosity of the geoscience community will set a precedent for the other disciplines to follow. It certainly ensures a steady stream of geoscientific expertise flowing to Capitol Hill and an equally steady flow of policy expertise flowing back into our profession.


Applegate directs the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program and is editor of Geotimes. Email: apple@agiweb.org.

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