Volcanologists don’t usually think much about legislative affairs, but in the past year as GSA’s Science Policy Fellow, I’ve found out that science and government – particularly in this country – are intertwined in ways that geoscientists don’t think about much. Now that Congress is in recess and the capital has quieted down for the summer, I’ve had a chance to reflect on how I understood science policy coming into this job, and leaving it.

Working on policy in DC gives you a new perspective – in a lot of different ways!

Working on policy in DC gives you a new perspective – in a lot of different ways!

I grew up in the Washington DC area, and when you’re in such close proximity to the nation’s capital it’s hard not to be at least a little aware of what goes on there. But for me, like most people, what happened behind the scenes on Capitol Hill was always a murky concept. I knew the basics that everyone learns in civics or government classes, but beyond that my exposure was mainly filtered through the news (not always the most objective medium). As a student in college and grad school, I was pretty determined that I was going to be a researcher, but I also became involved heavily in science communication through my blog and activities with various professional societies. That’s what led me to apply for a policy position when I was finishing up my PhD, and I think it’s been a major factor in how much I’ve enjoyed working for GSA’s policy office.

As an “in-house” policy fellow, my experience differs a bit from the Congressional fellows (like the one sponsored by GSA). Instead of working as a staffer on the Hill, where I might have covered anything science-related for my office, I instead get to focus on legislative issues that directly concern GSA members: funding for basic research, energy and natural resource assessments, climate change policy and greenhouse gas regulation, and natural hazard mitigation and response.

 

A staffer’s-eye view of a briefing on carbon capture and sequestration in the Senate Natural Resources Committee room

A staffer’s-eye view of a briefing on carbon capture and sequestration in the Senate Natural Resources Committee room.

 

I attend and report on hearings and briefings on Capitol Hill, but I also help GSA work with coalitions that support the agencies that fund geoscience research, as well as arrange congressional visits for GSA members to share their science with policymakers. Keeping track of legislation and how it progresses through Congress (or not) is a great challenge, since it means I have to know background on not only the legislative process but the history of whatever agency, funding source or topic is relevant to the bills I’m following. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about a wide range of things that I might never have encountered in research – everything from what constitutes a critical mineral to how federal disaster declarations are handled on reservations.

Attending a “Constituent Coffee” at Senator Merkley’s (D-OR) office with Dr. Jeff Rubin, chair of GSA’s Geology and Public Policy Committee.

Attending a “Constituent Coffee” at Senator Merkley’s (D-OR) office with Dr. Jeff Rubin, chair of GSA’s Geology and Public Policy Committee.

 

 

Senator Merkley discusses emergency management with Dr. Rubin.

Senator Merkley discusses emergency management with Dr. Rubin.

 

One of the most important things I’m learning – and one that’s crucial to any science policy job – is how to “translate” between the language and culture of policy and those of geoscience. Scientists and legislators may have similar goals but very different approaches to achieving them, and miscommunication between us can be a detriment to getting policy enacted. I find it really satisfying to figure out how to frame a topic so it’s relevant and impactful for both sides of the divide, and it’s definitely something I can carry on to a research career. (Broader impacts statements, anyone?)

There have been other important lessons I’ve learned from my time in DC:

 

  • You can’t necessarily pigeonhole people on issues by party. My favorite example is the current chair of the House Science Committee. He makes no pretense about, for example, being extremely skeptical about anthropogenic climate change – nearly every science-related hearing begins with him and the ranking Democratic Member squaring off on the topic – but he is also an astronomy buff and has called multiple hearings about the future of space exploration. (He’s also got a space-themed tie collection.) The same can be said of almost every Member; there are specific things they are for and against, often depending on their district’s industry but sometimes it’s based on personal conviction, and you can’t necessarily predict which is which based on party lines.
  • Legislators are human. The fact that you usually only see them on TV or in newspapers doesn’t impart any kind of superhuman powers or infallibility; they’re mostly normal people who are really good at fundraising and convincing others they’re worthy of a vote. They have preferences and biases and senses of humor just like anyone else, even if they do get to use special elevators and wear fancy pins. They mess up as often as the rest of us, and they’re just as capable of doing great things.
  • Anyone can watch the process of government going on. Legislation gets written and debated in hearings, and they are almost all open to the public and broadcast online. (It’s a bit harder to go see the chambers in session, but that’s usually on CSPAN anyway.) Hearings can be alternately enlightening, aggravating, shocking, informative, boring, interesting, contentious and amicable, but they are almost always worth attending. After all, these are your elected representatives in action, and engaging in politics doesn’t end with voting!
  • Capitol Hill is essentially run by people in their twenties. Senior staff and members tend to be older, but many of the staffers in congressional offices are very young, sometimes right out of college. They work hard and cover lots of issues, so they tend to have a broad but shallow knowledge of things like science topics. However, I’ve never met a staffer who wasn’t at least polite, attentive and gracious. If you ever go on a congressional visit, these are probably the people you will speak with!
  • Some things move fast, some things move slow, and networking is how you keep up with them. Nowadays it can take years for a simple reauthorization bill to get through Congress. But when changes happen in a bill’s status, they can happen pretty quickly. There are lots of news outlets that follow science legislation and post up-to-the-hour updates on what’s going on, but where do they get their scoops? Networking. Know someone working in the relevant office and you’ve got the gossip on what’s happening next. The same goes for having an influence on legislation: when we take people on visits, we make the point that the personal meeting is often going to have more of an impact than an email or a letter. If someone in a Congressional office remembers that you’re willing to be a resource, they may turn to you when the next bill needs professional input.

 

Politics can be every bit as messy as your faculty (or committee, or club, or association, or whatever) meeting. We may see political gridlock in DC and wonder why Congress can’t seem to get anything done, but it’s often for the very same reasons that we dread our own planning meetings or faculty retreats: people have different opinions, different values, and different approaches to dealing with challenges. Legislators and their staff are only human, and they can’t be experts in everything. That isn’t to say Congress hasn’t created a lot of their own problems, but having perspective on the mechanics of the policy world has helped me understand how they got there.

Ultimately, I’ve come out of this experience firmly believing that all geoscientists – especially anyone who depends on federal funding for their research – should make an effort to be at least a little aware of how the political process operates, and how we can participate in it. We’re in a period where funding for basic research, particularly in the geosciences, is not only decreasing but sometimes actively under attack, and we have to be ready to think about why geoscience research is important and how we can justify spending money on it. And it’s not hard to take the next step: go on a congressional visit, become a resource for testimony at a hearing, or even just write a letter to your representatives letting them know what you want them to do.

As I trade my suits for hiking boots and t-shirts, I like to hope that I’ll still have time to practice what I preach. Rejoining the world of geoscience research will mean I have to put in a special effort to keep up with the latest appropriations bills or congressional testimony. But now that I know how all that relates to my next grant proposal, you can be sure I’ll be writing letters and going on visits as often as I can!

Jessica Ball, outgoing GSA Science Policy Fellow

6/6/14

Before leaving Changping (the north outskirts of Beijing) we were able to visit the Ming Tombs arriving early to beat the crowds and long lines of traffic.  I got a tour of impressive facilities at China University of Geosciences closer to the central city of Beijing.  Nearby we visited the Summer Palace vacation home for the Ming and Ching emperors.  At the Old Summer Palace Yuanmingyuan it was sad to see how it had been looted and destroyed in the 1860s.

All of the China geoscience universities feature this prominent statue at the entry gates.  Here we get a tour of the campus with host Prof. Hongyu Wang.

All of the China geoscience universities feature this prominent statue at the entry gates. Here we get a tour of the campus with host Prof. Hongyu Wang.

In a country of 1.35 billion, in a city of 21 million, a familiar face says hi to me at the hotel breakfast bar.  It is colleague Dr. Lisa Pratt from Indiana who has been doing field work in China.  Ok, we were both staying at the hotel on the China University of Geosciences campus, but still what are the chances of that??!

China University of Geosciences has these brand new university buses for student field trips.  I think they get to ride in style!

China University of Geosciences has these brand new university buses for student field trips. I think they get to ride in style!

I also gave a talk at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences (CAGS), under the government’s Ministry of Land and Resources branch.  This academy conducts frontier, fundamental and strategic studies that are key to geoscience and resources.

At the Chinese Academy of Geosciences, we learned about SinoProbe, a major earth science effort funded by the Chinese government to conduct deep exploration to understand structure, and evolution of lithosphere of China’s continental lithosphere using multiple techniques.  The principal investigator is Prof. Dong Shuwen (right of me, with some of his staff).

At the Chinese Academy of Geosciences, we learned about SinoProbe, a major earth science effort funded by the Chinese government to conduct deep exploration to understand structure, and evolution of China’s continental lithosphere using multiple techniques. The principal investigator is Prof. Dong Shuwen (right of me, with some of his staff).

Nearby, we were able to visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, with great views from nearby temple gardens.  We also enjoyed visiting “798”, an up and coming arts district on the northeast side of Beijing. Of course we couldn’t leave Beijing without having Peking Duck.

Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public square (looking south from the Forbidden City).

Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public square (looking south from the Forbidden City).

The Gate of Heavenly Peace, by the south entry to the Forbidden City, the largest palace complex in the world.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace, by the south entry to the Forbidden City, the largest palace complex in the world.

From Jingshan park, you can see the overview of the Forbidden City with China’s best preserved ancient buildings.

From Jingshan park, you can see the overview of the Forbidden City with China’s best preserved ancient buildings.

This draws the second trip of the GSA lecture tour to a close.  There were so many great experiences and people in Asia, and I am still trying to absorb all that has happened.  I loved the Japanese culture and even though I am a 3rd generation American, I had always wanted to visit China.  One student tells me, in China I am referred to as a “banana” – yellow on the outside but white on the inside.  Hmmm…. the trip has added many colors, cultures, and landscapes to my perspective.   Most of all, it has been great to share and exchange ideas and enthusiasm for geoscience around the world.

On a warm June evening we saw the famed “bird nest” stadium constructed for Beijing’s 2008 summer Olympics.

On a warm June evening we saw the famed “bird nest” stadium constructed for Beijing’s 2008 summer Olympics.

In the bustle of Beijing, there are still some serene moments looking at the Summer Palace grounds.

In the bustle of Beijing, there are still some serene moments looking at the Summer Palace grounds.

- Margie

6/2/14

This shows one of the few days of blue sky at the very northern of Beijing where there are mountains in the horizon.

This shows one of the few days of blue sky at the very northern end of Beijing where there are mountains on the horizon.

We are now in Beijing, our final city in China.  At the northern end of Beijing, I gave a full day “short course” to 90 graduate students at China University of Petroleum.  They have an active AAPG student chapter and although many are in a petroleum track, they had penetrating questions about Mars geology. Some students from the AAPG chapter in Qingdao made a 270 km trek here to participate in the short course.

Here I am pictured with my host Prof. Youliang Ji (next to me) and several of the energetic students and AAPG chapter members who helped with the short course and my visit.  My M.S. student Kangcheng Yin is at the far right.

Here I am pictured with my host Prof. Youliang Ji (next to me) and several of the energetic students and AAPG chapter members who helped with the short course and my visit. My M.S. student Kangcheng Yin is at the far right.

I gave a total of three lectures at sign the 90 certificates of short course completion for the students at China University of Petroleum.

I gave a total of three lectures and signed the 90 certificates of short course completion for the students at China University of Petroleum.

On the day we arrived, it was the first time we had really seen deep blue sky, but unfortunately it didn’t carry over to the day we went to see the Great Wall of China.  Still, the Great Wall is everything you have heard and seen and more.  Like the Terracotta Warriors, it is hard to describe as it is so unique, and the scale is so impressive over such mountainous terrain.  We got up very early to walk in the cooler part of the day and to avoid some of the intense crowds.  When we first arrived, the parking lot only had a few dozen cars.  A few hours later when we returned, the parking lot looked full with dozens and dozens of tour buses all idling to keep the air conditioning going (a sigh for global warming…..).   The wall has been reconstructed in many parts, and the grey brick steps are heavily cupped from so much foot traffic.  Some parts are very steep and sometimes slippery even though it isn’t wet. Visitors of all ages crowd up or down the popular section where some ride a gondola to the top, and/or take a sled ride down.  We hiked one section to Gate 12 where it is a dead end segment. That was the part I enjoyed the most because hardly anyone was on that segment and you really get a feeling of the expansiveness that required the efforts and lives across so many dynasties.

The Badaling section of the Great Wall is very popular because it is close and accessible to Beijing.

The Great Wall snakes up and down the hillsides like a dragon, protecting the northern boundary of Beijing.

 The Badaling section of the Great Wall is very popular because it is close and accessible to Beijing.

The Badaling section of the Great Wall is very popular because it is close and accessible to Beijing.

My husband John points back to one of the Great Wall gates that we had just walked from.

My husband John points back to one of the Great Wall gates that we had just walked from.

- Margie

5/29/14

The tall Big Goose Pagoda tower is a popular site.

The tall Big Goose Pagoda tower is a popular site.

Over the course of three days, I lectured at three different universities in Xi’an, all relatively close and accessible to the city center. Many of the Chinese faculty have opportunities to further their professional experience as visiting scholars at foreign universities and we often swap stories of different places they have been. Xian Shiyou University specializes in petroleum related programs. At Northwest University, I gave 2 lectures plus a Q&A session with an engaging group of students. They liked the primer on how to give good powerpoint presentations and we discussed the application process to U.S. graduate schools. Chang’an University is conveniently located right across the road from the Shaanxi History Museum, which limits visitors to only 4,000 per day. On our tour of the museum, a local guide told us the background innovation stories behind some of the artifacts. That was fascinating.

In the summer evenings, many locals gather by the Big Goose temple grounds for a large light and water fountain show.

In the summer evenings, many locals gather by the Big Goose temple grounds for a large light and water fountain show.

The city of Xi’an has many interesting sights, but one highlight was an evening bike ride on top of the 14 m-wide, fortified inner ancient city wall built during the 14th century Ming dynasty.

China is a mix of old and new.  Inside the 500 year old massive city walls, there are no huge high rise buildings, which helps preserve the feeling of the old.  We biked on top of the wall for the entire 14 km circumference seeing very few other riders or pedestrians, an experience to remember.

China is a mix of old and new. Inside the 500 year old massive city walls, there are no huge high rise buildings, which helps preserve the feeling of the old. We biked on top of the wall for the entire 14 km circumference seeing very few other riders or pedestrians, an experience to remember.

A new multi-story shopping mall has a huge, ginormous animated “TV screen” ceiling, where scenes of a tropical ocean were played over our heads, making it seem like we were in the bottom of an enormous aquarium. The scenes change to winter ski scenes, hot airballoons, or watching flying geese overhead etc., and of course the less exciting interspersed ads.

A new multi-story shopping mall has a huge, ginormous animated “TV screen” ceiling, where scenes of a tropical ocean were played over our heads, making it seem like we were in the bottom of an enormous aquarium. The scenes change to winter ski scenes, hot airballoons, or watching flying geese overhead etc., and of course the less exciting interspersed ads.

Another highlight was our visit to the Tomb of Han Emperor Jingdi (Han Yangling). An underground museum path with some glass floors led us through and over this ancient burial site where they have excavated “small warriors”, pottery animals, and many artifacts. These are reminiscent of the Terra Cotta warriors, but are scaled down (much like large dolls ~ 30 cm high), and are not as detailed. However, it is still an amazing glimpse of the culture preserved in a royal mausoleum that is much less crowded with visitors.

This mound is the burial site of Emperor Jingdi (Han Yangling).

This mound is the burial site of Emperor Jingdi (Han Yangling).

Emperor Jingdi’s tomb is surrounded  by small warriors (shown in the pit) and a variety of animals.

Emperor Jingdi’s tomb is surrounded by small warriors (shown in the pit) and a variety of animals.

Emperor Jingdi’s tomb is surrounded  by small warriors and a variety of animals (here shown in the museum).

Emperor Jingdi’s tomb is surrounded by small warriors and a variety of animals (here shown in the museum).

After all that tourist fun, one might need a little counseling…

After all that tourist fun, one might need a little counseling…

- Margie

5/26/14

Xi’an’s Bell Tower sits surrounded by flowers and a busy traffic circle.

Xi’an’s Bell Tower sits surrounded by flowers and a busy traffic circle.

We are in the center of Xi’an, Shaanxi province, which has a wall around it from the Ming dynasty (~500yrs ago). Over the weekend we did some sightseeing before the lectures at three different universities start on Monday.

China has invested heavily in infrastructure with many new bridges.

China has invested heavily in infrastructure with many new bridges.

 

Many taxis have been converted to natural gas, crowd the fueling station and raise their hoods to fill up.

Many taxis have been converted to natural gas, crowd the fueling station and raise their hoods to fill up.

A popular attraction a bustling street in the Muslim quarter, loaded with vendors from the Hui ethnic group selling all kinds of food, and other things.

My M.S. student Kangcheng Yin has been a great help with the language, and arrangements.  He buys a batch of spicy peanuts with peppers from a vendor in the Muslim Quarter.

My M.S. student Kangcheng Yin has been a great help with the language, and arrangements. He buys a batch of spicy peanuts with peppers from a vendor in the Muslim Quarter.

Today we went to see the impressive terra cotta warriors about an hour east of the city. The army of pottery soldiers guarding the tomb of the emperor of the first unified Chinese empire is hard to fathom.  You can’t help but be amazed by such a unique site.  Thousands of individually different soldiers line up in rows excavated from the loamy soil. The level of detail is astounding; each figure has different facial features, hair styles, and uniforms. The main tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang has only been probed in a few spots, and the terra cotta warriors form only a small part of the whole complex.

It’s exciting to see the world famous Terra Cotta Warriors.

It’s exciting to see the world famous Terra Cotta Warriors.  The ranks of warriors recedes into the distance, where their unexcavated companions await.

Silent guardians of the emperor’s tomb.

Silent guardians of the emperor’s tomb.

Figures of horses pulling chariots (now decomposed).

Figures of horses pulling chariots (now decomposed).

Each figure is unique, with its own features, and the armour is  very detailed.

Each figure is unique, with its own features, and the armour is very detailed.

After our tour, we headed back to the Muslim quarter for a local lamb stew eaten with torn-up bread chunks, a warm and delicious way to revive after a long day of sightseeing.

A bustling scene in the Muslim Quarter’s food street.

A bustling scene in the Muslim Quarter’s food street.

- Margie

5/25/14

East Lake is a large lake in the Wuhan area and we had a scenic overlook from a nearby hill.

East Lake is a large lake in the Wuhan area and we had a scenic overlook from a nearby hill.

Wuhan is the capitol city of Hubei Province, and at ~ 10 million people it is the largest city in central China.   One of our most memorable meals (and they seem like they’ve all been big!) was a restaurant next door to the Taoist temple, known for its great variety of tofu (looks and tastes like chicken or beef, has similar textures, but is tofu!).  We visited the famed Wuhan museum that has many cultural artifacts excavated from nearby areas, showing how this area was major center of civilization in China for millennia. We listened to a small concert on reproduction bells and instruments copied from those past dynasties.

Wuhan’s Changchun temple dates back to the reign of Genghis Khan, and still is a peaceful retreat with colorful red ribbons that display wishes.  Outside the temple gates, city street fortune tellers read palms and shake sticks.

Wuhan’s Changchun temple dates back to the reign of Genghis Khan, and still is a peaceful retreat with colorful red ribbons that display wishes.

Outside the temple gates, city street fortune tellers read palms and shake sticks.

Outside the temple gates, city street fortune tellers read palms and shake sticks.

Wu treasures

The Wuhan museum has impressive pieces of cultural heritage, such as this carved jade and gold piece.

We  topped off a busy day with a nice dinner on a lakeshore pavilion.

We topped off a busy day with a nice dinner on a lakeshore pavilion.

Grilled frogs on a stick are a tasty snack.

Grilled frogs on a stick are a tasty snack.

I gave two lectures at the China University of Geosciences, a campus that has over 20,000 students in geoscience-related disciplines.  The campus was impressive, especially with its outdoor rock displays.

In the center of China University of Geosciences is a lovely petrified forest park area with grouped fossil trees of different regions on realistic looking tree “root” bases.

In the center of China University of Geosciences is a lovely petrified forest park area with grouped fossil trees of different regions on realistic looking tree “root” bases.

 

Petrified forest sign.

Petrified forest sign.

Several seating areas had lovely large polished petrified round tables with smaller polished tree trunk bases.

Several seating areas had lovely large polished petrified round tables with smaller polished tree trunk bases.

With my Chinese descent and a name like Chan, I often disappoint folks with my inability to speak Chinese (especially if they’re trying to get me to buy something).  But it has been interesting to finally get to visit China, home of my family roots.

- Margie

5/22/14

Even in the haze, the towering mountains by the Yangtze River were amazingly impressive.

Even in the haze, the towering mountains by the Yangtze River were amazingly impressive.

From Shanghai we flew into Wuhan, Hubei province in central China, met by my host Dr. Guangming Hu who had been a visiting scholar in my department in 2013. Soon we were in a van heading to the Three Gorges Dam.  We traveled through a landscape of rice paddies, rivers and lakes in a green and watery mosaic. The terrain along the Yangtze River is stunningly beautiful with steep slopes, limestone cliffs and villages with terraced fields. We toured the dam and lock system, then headed down the river gorge to see some geology.

 

My husband John and I enjoyed seeing the Three Gorges Dam. At the dam site itself, there were many tour groups of both foreign and Chinese visitors.

My husband John and I enjoyed seeing the Three Gorges Dam. At the dam site itself, there were many tour groups of both foreign and Chinese visitors.

Below the Three Gorges Dam, cliff writings were carved into Cambrian limestones where a steep visitor staircase was cut.

Below the Three Gorges Dam, cliff writings were carved into Cambrian limestones where a steep visitor staircase was cut.

Along the cliff carving path, nice herringbone cross bedding structures indicate an intertidal setting for the Cambrian limestones.

Along the cliff carving path, nice herringbone cross bedding structures indicate an intertidal setting for the Cambrian limestones.

Several villages in the mountains have quarry storage areas for large stone monoliths for sale.  I contemplate on the large black shale concretions, and wonder about its formation…

Several villages in the mountains have quarry storage areas for large stone monoliths for sale. I contemplate the large black shale concretions, and wonder about their formation…

Yangtze University has a strong focus on petroleum and energy.  In their School of Geosciences I gave three days of lectures that included my two GSA talks, and additional lectures on hot topics in sedimentary geology, interactive learning styles, and skill sets for success.  Yangtze University lies on a peninsula in a lake, with lots of new construction, flanked by farms on one side where chickens and ducks are heard. This is on the outskirts of our next stop, the big city of Wuhan.

A large monolith announcing the Yangtze University stands at the campus gate.

A large monolith announcing the Yangtze University stands at the campus gate.

A large red banner greeted me across the entrance of Yangtze University.  The banner announces part of the “Plan of World Famous Scientist Lecture- Marjorie Chan” (approximate translation of Chinese).

A large red banner greeted me across the entrance of Yangtze University. The banner announces part of the “Plan of World Famous Scientist Lecture- Marjorie Chan” (approximate translation of Chinese).

In the School of Geosciences at Yantze University, we pose by the GSA talk signs.  My faculty host Dr. Guangming Hu specializes in sequence stratigraphy.  One of my current M.S. students Kangcheng Yin (far left) joined us for part of the China portion of the trip to act as my translator (translating both lectures and conversations)- very handy for Wuhan.

In the School of Geosciences at Yantze University, we pose by the GSA talk signs. My faculty host Dr. Guangming Hu specializes in sequence stratigraphy. One of my current M.S. students Kangcheng Yin (far left) joined us for part of the China portion of the trip to act as my translator (translating both lectures and conversations) – very handy for Wuhan.

The students were very interested in US graduate schools and application processes.  The female students also wanted to know what the opportunities and challenges are for women scientists in America, and wanted to know my personal history.

The students were very interested in US graduate schools and application processes. The female students also wanted to know what the opportunities and challenges are for women scientists in America, and wanted to know my personal history.

- Margie

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