A Category 5 Adventure
by Sarah K. Noble, 2004-2005 GSA-U.S. Geological Survey Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 15, no. 12 (December 2005)
It has been quite a year working with the House Science Committee's Space Subcommittee, one that seems to have both started and ended amidst hurricanes. In fact, maybe that's a good symbol for the whirlwind adventure that was my past year as Congressional Science Fellow.
The first storm I encountered on this journey was the remnants of a hurricane whose name I can no longer remember. It reached Rhode Island just as I was loading the last of my belongings into the moving-truck; I was lucky that almost everything stayed dry. I arrived at my new home in Washington, D.C., just as the remnants of another storm (that I also can't remember the name of) hit. For the second time in a week, I lucked out and managed to get almost everything inside just as the rain started to fall.
A few weeks later, I was reminded just how lucky I was when I tried to interview in the office of Senator Bill Nelson (D—Fla.). I was asked to call back in a few months when they would have time to deal with something besides hurricane relief. Clearly, my experience of the hurricane season of 2004 was mild compared to that of the citizens of Florida. Of course, now even those devastating hurricanes have been overshadowed by Hurricane Katrina. Katrina is a name I am not likely to forget, and neither is Rita.
It's interesting how in this town everything happening in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast seems to be both closer and farther away. Closer, because it affects members of Congress like Rep. Charlie Melancon, a member of my committee, whose southeastern Louisiana district was devastated by Katrina and hit again by Rita. I spent a good portion of my Labor Day weekend volunteering in Melancon's office, where I got a close-up view of the situation. As personal as that experience was, in some ways the whole tragedy seemed so far away because everything here is distorted through a weird political lens. From the minute Katrina made landfall, I could hear the buzz in this town: How will this affect my poll numbers? Can we use this to push for higher fuel efficiency standards? In D.C., everything is political, all the time.
I have even found myself looking through that political lens, trying to figure out how Katrina will affect the Space Subcommittee. How much damage was there at the two National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) facilities in Katrina's path? How will that affect the launch schedule for the next shuttle? Where will the money for repairs come from? How long will this distract the Senate from finding time to pass that NASA bill? I guess it's an occupational hazard.
Shouting into the Wind
In the wake of Katrina, I cringed to hear President Bush and others say that they had been caught off guard, that they were surprised the levees broke. How is that possible? Scientists and engineers had been warning for years that New Orleans was in danger, and yet it appears that their warnings fell on deaf ears. Why weren't they listened to? Indeed, it often feels like scientists are shouting into the wind.
In my last article, I talked about how useful it can be to establish and maintain a relationship with your Congress members and their staff, providing your opinion and expertise when appropriate. However, it has become increasingly clear to me this year that simply having access to experts isn't enough.
Here is where I think sometimes we as scientists fail to have an impact: we are, by nature, logical. We assume that all we have to do is explain things to people and they will see the logic, jump on board, and do the logical thing. Things don't work that way in D.C. Logic isn't the only driver in this town. In fact, logic is pretty far down the list. Politics, economics, and a million other factors go into every decision that our lawmakers consider.
I have witnessed the phenomenon of the logical scientist firsthand many times this year when scientists have come in to talk about various projects. They bring in cool pictures. They talk about the exciting science results they are hoping to find. And they think that's enough. But it's only the start. They need to go further, to put the science into context, to justify it.
Congress members want to know what's in it for them and their constituents. Will it provide jobs? Bring money or prestige to a university or facility in their district? Is there an outreach program or some sort of student involvement? Will there be technology spinoffs? These are the kinds of considerations that can make your science relevant. No matter how fabulous your project is, without context, you're just one more person asking for money.
In The Eye of the Storm
Despite that advice, I don't think that anyone could argue that lack of relevance can account for the lack of action to secure New Orleans. I really don't have an answer for that. I wish I did. Perhaps our government officials just closed their eyes, crossed their fingers, and hoped that New Orleans would continue to be lucky. Or maybe the 14-billion-dollar price tag on the proposed Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Project gave them sticker shock. (Isn't it funny how suddenly $14 billion over 30 years seems like chump change when compared to cleanup and rebuilding costs?) There are numerous investigations under way in Congress and the rest of the government to search for those answers; maybe they'll even find some.
Whatever the excuses, my sincere hope is that we can all learn from this tragedy. I hope, in particular, that our government understands that ignoring the scientific community doesn't make the problem go away. The optimist in me would like to think that we can learn from our mistakes and that, next time, the voices of the scientists will be heard. So, ultimately, my advice is: keep shouting.
After the Rain
The Gulf Coast will forever be changed by the hurricanes. Homes and lives will be rebuilt, but things will never be exactly the way they were before. For so many, a line has been drawn across the timeline of their lives. Their memories will now be filed as either before Katrina and Rita or after.
In some small measure, I feel the same way about my time in Washington. My life will forever be changed by this fellowship. Part of that change is the friendships and connections that I have made here, but a lot of it is because "Congress" and "The Government" are no longer black boxes to me. I understand much more clearly now how it all works (or doesn't, as the case may be). That understanding has changed my perspective. I no longer feel helpless. You won't ever catch me sitting around wondering why "someone doesn't do something about that," but rather, I'll be thinking, "What can I do about that?" As scientists, we all know that knowledge is empowering, and I have gained an unbelievable amount of knowledge this year.
Public Service Message
Speaking of empowering knowledge: One of the projects that I worked on this year, and that I'm very proud of, is our brand new committee Web site, http://sciencedems.house.gov. There you can find all kinds of information about what is happening in the science committee, information on bills and investigations, transcripts from hearings, member speeches, and more. The resources on this site can keep you informed and educated about the complex goings on of science policy.
In addition to science committee information, there is also a section titled "Science Education & You." This is my main contribution to the site. These pages are designed as a clearinghouse of federal educational resources for K-16 math and science teachers. By providing access to science and math lesson plans, internship information, summer program opportunities, and countless other resources, our hope is that this site will become a valuable tool for students and educators across the country.
I hope that you will find some time to explore the site and send your comments and suggestions to the committee staff. If you find the site useful, please pass it on to your friends and colleagues.
This manuscript is submitted for publication by Sarah K. Noble, 2004-2005 GSA-U.S. Geological Survey Congressional Science Fellow, with the understanding that the U.S. government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for governmental use. The one-year fellowship is supported by GSA and by the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, under Assistance Award No. 02HQGR0141. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. government. Noble can be reached at Sarah.Noble@mail.house.gov.