Science Policy & Funding AGU News

Geoscientists Visit Their Legislators on Capitol Hill

The American Geophysical Union's Congressional Visits Day acquaints members of Congress with the breadth of geophysical research being carried out in their districts and across the nation.

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As an eager young grad student, I enjoy discussing high-level geoscience topics with experts in my field on a day-to-day basis. We debate the fine details of processing seismological signals and the causes of weak or noisy seismometer data, but much of our knowledge is not disseminated to those outside of academia.

Last February, when I was presented with the opportunity to participate in the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) second annual Congressional Visits Day (CVD) in Washington, D. C., in April, I was ecstatic. Here was an outlet to share geoscience knowledge with others outside of the “geo bubble.” At the time, I only knew that I would be in the District for 2 days with the intention of sharing the breadth of work covered by the term “geoscience.”

The CVD itself consists of 2 days of work followed by networking opportunities. The first day is a workshop where teams from each state learn the AGU “asks”—concise requests for budget allocations to present to members of Congress—and are taught about the federal budget and how funds are divided among various bodies of the government. The state teams are allowed time at the end of the day to prepare their speeches and review what each congressman or congresswoman from their state is specifically involved or interested in. The second day of the CVD is the actual visits on Capitol Hill, where the AGU team leaders organize meetings with various offices’ staff members.

When I walked into the workshop on Wednesday, I was struck by the breadth of expertise represented by the professionals in the room. There were 17 geoscientists who represented California, Colorado, New York, and Texas, all coming from various careers. There were a few graduate students like myself, but there were far more career scientists who held positions at universities, at national labs, or in industry.

The state teams were created to show the members of Congress and their staffers the variety of work that is held under the umbrella term “geoscience” and to give specific examples of the work being done in their home states. I have attended the whirlwind known as AGU Fall Meeting, but I was still impressed by the variety of work we are all a part of.

Now, imagine being a nonscientist who works in policy. When this nonscientist hears “geoscience,” they think “rocks!” This is the idea we refuted when we walked into the offices of our respective congressmen and congresswomen.

So that we could visit the offices of as many representatives as possible, AGU divided us into state teams. Because of its size, Texas had two teams. Texas team 1 consisted of William Anderson, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Dallas studying desertification and turbulent air flows in Texas; Jenna Lynk, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Southwest Research Institute of Texas working on the Juno mission to Jupiter; and me, a master’s degree student building velocity models to more accurately locate earthquakes in Texas. We each had a personal relationship with the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or the U.S. Geological Survey, which allowed us to not only display the work being conducted in Texas but give a personal example of why each of those agencies is important and necessary.

I’ve been a staffer for a state representative, and I understand the importance of a succinct, well-thought ask and the weight of having a constituent visit the office to discuss matters that are of note to him or her. Before our office visits, AGU did a wonderful job of making sure we were all comfortable discussing the material and relaying our personal message.

My thought going into this process was that even if I didn’t discuss geoscience issues with someone who was interested, at least I got the message across that geoscience is bigger than “rocks” and it impacts are more than just the scientists in the labs.

Impressively, we had a receptive audience for each of our visits. Our team shared personal messages of impact and the broader scope of research leading into the specific AGU asks, and the AGU team leads assisted in closing the conversation and sharing the chance to participate in a new Congressional Geoscience Caucus. A few staffers were interested in receiving additional information on the research, and a few others made a point of wanting to keep in contact after our meetings.

Going into the CVD, I was a little hesitant. I was wary about how much staffers at a federal level would really care about their constituents, being so far removed, and about how much the offices would care to hear about geoscience and its impact.

Coming out of the CVD, I feel that the AGU team was an awesome influence and point of information for the offices on the Hill.

It was rewarding to share what research is being conducted and also hear that the staffers working for members of Congress were interested in delving deeper into the topics discussed during the meeting. Not only were the AGU asks communicated, but I believe our visits left the offices with a face to geoscience and better understanding of how the field is more than “just rocks.”

—Taylor Borgfeldt, Graduate Research Assistant at University of Texas at Austin; email: [email protected]

Citation: Borgfeldt, T. (2016), Geoscientists visit their legislators on Capitol Hill, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO054373. Published on 17 June 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0