10 Years Later: Reflections from the Policy Frontlines

In a recent post, Erica asked her 2003 Knauss Marine Policy Fellow cohort what suprised them most as scientists entering the policy realm for the first time, and how the fellowship has since shaped their career trajectory, worldview or both. Here are their responses in full. You can jump ahead to their answers to:

  1. What most surprised you at the beginning of the fellowship year? How did the culture of the policy world differ from the world you were coming from?
  2. After leaving the Hill, did you think differently about science or the scientific enterprise? 
  3. Reflecting back, what lessons do you think you took away from your stint on the Hill? How have you used this experience? 
  4. If you could share one piece of advice with young scientists about what they should understand about policy, what would it be?

1. What most surprised you at the beginning of the fellowship year?  How did the culture of the policy world differ from the world you were coming from?

Sunshine Menezes

Executive Director of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting

I was very surprised to learn how few staffers working on environmental policy had any science background. With the benefit of hindsight I can see that I had a very naive view of the experience that a typical staffer would or should have, but I still think it’s unfortunate that there aren’t more people with science backgrounds working as Congressional staff.

The culture was radically different from the academic research world that I had come from before the fellowship. In science, you have to prove your assertions through repetition and statistical significance. In policy, the validity of one’s assertions often hinges on the effectiveness of the message, not the facts (or lack thereof) within the message. While I had expected this culture shift, I was surprised at just how easy it was to manipulate facts in the world of policy.

Barbara Peichel

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Watershed Manager

Everything.  Mostly it was that people were so committed and smart and hardworking on the Hill.  They really dedicated their life to the work they were doing.  And I worked for a Senator [Akaka (HI)] who had the priorities of the people he represented truly at heart when he went about his work.  I also remember during training when one of the instructors said that the legislative system is intentionally set up to be slow with a lot of checks and balances – that ideas and bills don’t get passed in one session, it may take years working on something to get legislation through (which is good in a way because then many bad things don’t get passed quickly).

Rachel Feeney

New England Fisheries Management Council

Surprising:

  • Just how big NOAA is!
  • That people would stand when I enter the room (constituent meetings).
  • Without the staff, Congressmen are helpless.
  • That on day one, I would be THE expert in the office for anything related to salt water globally.

Culture:
It was 180 degrees different.  As a student, I was narrowly focused on doing whatever it took to getting my advisor’s signature on my thesis.  As a fellow, you are instantly working on a worldwide stage, and you instantly see the larger context.  The policy world has many more moving parts.

Bridget Ferriss

Marine ecologist, recent Ph.D. from University of Washingon

This makes me think of a conversation I had in my fellowship office early on when I was complaining about how ‘political’ everything was and how so much came down to power and personalities. I was reminded that every system/institution could be described that way including academia – which when I thought about it was absolutely true. Professors could give Senators a run for their money.

2. After leaving the Hill, did you think differently about science or the scientific enterprise?

 

Sunshine Menezes

Absolutely. I became convinced that effective communication of science was not a luxury, but a necessity. In the absence of effective science communication, it is too easy for research results to be misrepresented to the public.

Barbara Peichel

Probably the most startling moment I remember was when Senators were talking about climate change on the floor and the fake science had as much weight and floor time as the real science.  I thought there should be a “truth” gong or something so the American people could know what was true and false.  I mean this was going in our public record!  I think more now about how to communicate about the science.  FYI – you should all check out the recent Frontline show on Climate Change…really interesting why they think it isn’t being talked about now.

Rachel Feeney

Having had that larger view has been really eye opening and I can see how more “worldly” I’ve become.

Bridget Ferriss

Yes. I think much more about the context/application of science now than before the fellowship. I also see how university research (at least in the fisheries world) follows the funding, which generally follows political trends.

3. Reflecting back, what lessons do you think you took away from your stint on the Hill?  How have you used this experience, either directly or indirectly, in positions that you have held since (be as specific as you can about what you’ve done)?

 

Sunshine Menezes

Aside from the communication lesson identified above, I also learned the importance of including scientifically literate and knowledgeable individuals in the development of environmental and energy policy. Further, my Knauss experience convinced me that we need people with more varied professional skill sets (natural and social scientists, psychologists, MDs, accountants, etc.) in office, and fewer lawyers.
Immediately after the fellowship, I worked on coastal environmental policy at the state level for a couple years. While state-level policy brings many more local concerns to the table, it was helpful to have observed the process of negotiation that went on behind the scenes at the national level to inform my work at the state level.

More than anything, my greater appreciation of the need for effective science communication still drives the work that I do as executive director of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. Metcalf Institute works to improve environmental news coverage through science training for journalists. In addition to preparing journalists to cover science-based news more accurately and clearly, our programs help scientists see the value in proactively relate their research to the press to improve public understanding of science.

Barbara Peichel

Absolutely. When I was working in California on a wetland restoration project, we wanted to get some federal funding from the Army Corps of Engineers.  I would have had no idea how to go about that and just understanding the budget process and how to get our project on the list for bill language and appropriations and who to contact was very key.  I have also used it to work for a state agency as a legislative coordinator and it really helped me to understand the legislative process (although the state process is a lot more dynamic and less scripted).

Rachel Feeney

Most importantly, it has set the stage for what I’ve done ever since. I was a dabbler in many areas of natural science, but had zero experience in fisheries.  Although my last biology class was in high school (shhhh!), I’ve managed to take the fellowship experience and have fascinating and progressive work in fisheries ever since. Just in the last year or so, I’ve started to feel that I may actually have a career going.  Lessons: to “bloom where you’re planted” and triple check for typos on letters to be signed by Congressmen!

Bridget Ferriss

My fellowship helped me become more interested in and aware of how our society functions – not just the science side, but in general. I still read the Washington Post, as well as local papers, to follow the politics at that level. I find I look for motivation, meaning, and connections behind the actions of governing bodies, committees, leaders to better understand their actions and decisions.  In my employment, my fellowship lead to a position in NOAA Fisheries working on budget and policy issues related to marine environmental research, a position that directly benefited from understanding the legislative process.

4. If you could share one piece of advice with young scientists about what they should understand about policy, what would it be?

Sunshine Menezes

Policy is often very reactive. Case in point: the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was quickly developed in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, there was a great deal of discussion about whether and how to amend the Oil Pollution Act in response to the inadequacies that became apparent in the wake of another major spill. I’m not arguing that it’s a bad idea to revisit and update legislation. Rather, I’m arguing that environmental policy requires careful, thoughtful, and scientifically-informed discussion, and it’s not wise to make quick but long-lasting decisions in the wake of major environmental crises.

So my advice would be, given the reactive nature of lawmakers, don’t wait for a calamity to advocate for scientifically sound policy decisions.

Barbara Peichel

Your thoughts matter.  Contact your federal or state senator or representative and let your ideas and opinions be heard (an in-person visit or a personal letter/email is best – not a mass email that has the same language as hundreds of other folks).  You might have a great idea that they can champion into a legislative initiative.  And if that doesn’t interest you, align yourself with a lobbying group that can represent your interests as lobbyists play an important role in the process.  Science does matter, but only if we can understand how to explain the issues in a clear, concise manner and relate it to the hot policy issues of the day (will cap and trade help balance the federal deficit?  No? Then it isn’t going anywhere this session).

Rachel Feeney

Understanding the budget process is important, as is being able to communicate and work with people who you may not necessarily agree with.

Bridget Ferriss

Not sure about this one. No one piece of advice – except to take advantage of opportunities to go outside your science/academic box and experience the policy world. Participate in a committee, a fellowship, etc.

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