Science Policy & Funding News

Common Ground with New Congress Sought by Interior Secretary

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell discusses working with Congress, climate change, and scientific integrity during talks at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting.


Republican control of both houses of Congress could lead to constructive measures moving forward in the best interests of the American people, according to Sally Jewell, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI).

Elected officials in the previous Congress spent a lot of effort “shooting down those things that are put on the table,” Jewell said at a news briefing at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) recent Fall Meeting in San Francisco. ”You are going to see in this coming Congress more responsibility to see that things actually get accomplished that are in the best interest of peoples’ constituencies.” DOI focuses on a wide variety of concerns related to the management of natural resources.

During Jewell’s briefing, the Union Agency Lecture, and a student forum on 18 December, she called for working constructively with Congress and even with those who hold strong ideological views. Jewell emphasized the need to move forward creatively on climate change and other issues at a time when there are fiscal challenges. She also noted the fundamental importance of scientific integrity to the agency and DOI’s recently revised scientific integrity policy.

At the briefing, Jewell said that she has reached out proactively to members of the House and Senate to find out their goals and what they are trying to accomplish. “Those meetings are enormously helpful. If you are sitting here shooting bombs at each other from different parts of the ideological spectrum, you don’t have the awkwardness of a personal relationship,” she noted. With the Interior Department having “an equity” in most congressional districts, she said “there is that common ground we can find [that] I think will move productive things forward.”

Dealing with Ideological Opposition

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell delivers the Union Agency Lecture at the 2014 AGU Fall Meeting. Credit: Gary Wagner
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell delivers the Union Agency Lecture at the 2014 AGU Fall Meeting. Credit: Gary Wagner

Jewell underscored the need to find common ground and work with those who hold strong ideological opinions about climate change. She said that although some people may not agree on the origins of climate change, there could be agreement on how to deal with threats such as drought, wildfires, sea level rise, and the encroachment of salinity into freshwater supplies. Those concerns “are things that everybody can relate to because they are facts that are not refutable,” Jewell said. She added that building resilience to climate change could be one area of mutual interest.

She noted the importance of “finding that common ground and not really duking it out over things where you’re probably never going to move their ideology.”

She also emphasized the need to expose ideologically driven scientists whom she said leverage media to cast doubt on sound scientific data about climate change and other matters. She referenced Merchants of Doubt, a book and movie about this topic. “‘Merchants of Doubt’ scientists [who] make a profession out of creating doubt need to be exposed for what they are doing because it impacts all people,” she said.

A New Moonshot

Jewell, 58, recollected in her keynote speech the significance of the space race during her childhood. “The moonshot we need to take now is on climate change.” She said it is “the defining issue of our time” and something to which younger generations are paying tremendous attention.

She pointed to recent administration efforts, including the recently released White House National Climate Assessment and the U.S.-China joint announcement about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “Just as [President] Kennedy did [in focusing on the Moon], presidential leadership is now driving action again,” she said.

The Value of “Thoughtful Regulations”

In the Union Agency Lecture, Jewell stressed that sound science and data need to be transparent and readily available “so that [they] can be used in decisions that impact people and the environment without regard to political boundaries.”

She also argued forcefully for the value of key environmental regulations, including the Clean Air Act, federal automobile emissions standards, and proposed regulations on methane emissions from industrial sources. She said these and other actions not only are good for the environment but also can help to create jobs and opportunities for industry. “There is thoughtful regulation that has changed the face of this world, and certainly this country, particularly for environmental protection,” she noted.

Challenges for the Scientific Community

Jewell called on the scientific community to leverage scarce financial resources by working together to expand public and private partnerships. “None of us have the money we would like to have. We’re not back in the space race where the federal government is going to pay for everything,” she said.

In addition, Jewell urged scientists to take credit for their work and to share the importance of their work with friends, neighbors, and elected officials. She added that scientists need to “take responsibility for engaging the next generation” so that they have similar opportunities.

The Next Generation

During Jewell’s 1.5-hour forum with 13 students, she talked about the importance of science within DOI, science communication, how to get members of Congress concerned about science issues, scientific ethics and integrity, and other issues raised by the students.

Annie Tamalavage, a graduate student at Texas A&M University, was one participant. Tamalavage, formerly a geochemistry research assistant with ConocoPhillips, is a student representative on the AGU Council. She asked Jewell how scientists can best apply their skills, which may be useful both for the exploitation of natural resources and for understanding ecosystems and potential environmental impacts.

Jewell, who was trained as a petroleum engineer, said that scientists have the ability to know that there can sometimes be ethical dilemmas and to think about them. “Being a scientist enables you to think through those things and not be a purist,” she said, noting that DOI is responsible for the health of ecosystems, wildlife, and natural resources as well as leases for areas such as the outer continental shelf for oil and gas activities.

“How to reconcile those things? I think the answer is, you use science to understand them, and you use the most current information you can to understand what’s going on.” She added that the use of “thoughtful regulations” is “a way to begin to reconcile those things.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer


Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), Common ground with new Congress sought by interior secretary, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO022101.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0