by Thea Boodhoo, GeoCorps America Participant

In the cool shade of ferns and horsetails, at the edge of a sparkling river, a young animal lowers its head to drink. Its tail wags, and tiny spikes on the tip rustle a nearby frond. Startled, the animal looks up, water still dripping from its beak. It sees its parents nearby and knows everything is fine.

It doesn’t see the Allosaurus.

Carnegie Quarry, the famous wall of bones at Dinosaur National Monument. Our project this summer is to help create a website that brings the details of this unique natural history resource to the larger public and researchers around the world.

Carnegie Quarry, the famous wall of bones at Dinosaur National Monument. Our project this summer is to help create a website that brings the details of this unique natural history resource to the larger public and researchers around the world.

“Looks like they really took some liberties with that mural,” I said to Dan Chure, Park Paleontologist at Dinosaur National Monument, the first time I walked by the baby Stegosaurus skeleton at the Exhibit Hall. On the wall behind the corgi-sized assembly of bones is a depiction of the young animal hanging from the jaws of an Allosaurus, entrails dripping on the ferns below.

“Yeah that’s the whole blood and guts thing,” Chure explained. He later clarified that the scene was included to give a full, accurate depiction of Jurassic life and Allosaurus behavior, with as few liberties taken as possible. “Everyone likes to look at the Allosaurus skull in the exhibit and its pointy teeth but [they] rarely think of all the pain and death it took to get an Allosaurus with a skull that large.”

It’s not like I wasn’t surrounded by corpses anyway; the Exhibit Hall was built for the explicit purpose of preserving one of the most spectacular mass death assemblages known to paleontology. The wall opposite the mural is a bone-packed cliff of cool, yellow-gray sandstone, towering two stories above us. Etched out from the rock, in a painstaking process that took decades, are femura as big as I am, ribs that would never fit in any broiler, Stegosaurus plates that are more like serving platters, vertebral columns like small bridges, and up high on the right side of the wall, peeking out from the sandstone in full relief, is a Camarasaurus skull. It feels almost like it’s watching us–strange mammals of the unimaginable future–as we scurry below.

This is Carnegie Quarry, often referred to simply as the wall of bones. It’s why I’m here.

If you knew a bit about my background, you might scratch your head. How does a web content strategist with an advertising degree end up working with paleontologists on a fossil quarry? Besides the fact that I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was kid (who didn’t?) there aren’t many clues from my past that point to dinosaurs.

Dan Chure’s vision for the quarry is bigger than the two-story cliff face that draws thousands of visitors every year. He imagines a digital presence for the quarry–an experience that allows people all over the world to explore the quarry face and access information about its fossils that paleontologists have gained over its 100 years (this fall!) of excavation and public display. Chure’s vision is a large-scale, public, digital paleontology project, and that’s what drew me to it.

I mentioned my degree is in advertising. In 2007, when I started my first internship at an ad agency, it was more like Mad Men than most people would expect. I was even the only woman in the creative department for awhile. Things changed fast, though, and soon I was working exclusively on web projects at digital agencies where our creations were meant to be used and able to be analyzed, instead of just slapped on a TV screen and lucky to be remembered. I loved the challenge of digital media, the gratification of seeing people actually use what I built, and being able to change it if something wasn’t working or we had a better idea. Organizing complex systems of web content and breaking down information to make it useable became my specialty. I was good at making things make sense.

As I also mentioned, however, I wanted to be a paleontologist first. That passion for natural science, prehistory and the alien worlds of Earth’s past never left me. I read about the latest discoveries on my coffee breaks and downloaded Stegosaurus reconstructions for my desktop backgrounds. When I found myself getting addicted to math while researching Khan Academy’s online learning interface, I decided to take a statistics class. Maybe science isn’t out of my reach, I began to think. Soon I was dreaming of a transition into science communication. I decided to start doing the work I enjoyed for the subject I enjoyed, instead of whatever car or credit card brand I happened to be assigned to.

My own feet next to the footprint of a Triassic theropod, left in the Nugget Sandstone when it was merely sand over 200 million years ago. This track and many other paleontological surprises have been found within he bounds of Dinosaur National Monument since the founding of the park 100 years ago this fall.

My own feet next to the footprint of a Triassic theropod, left in the Nugget Sandstone when it was merely sand over 200 million years ago. This track and many other paleontological surprises have been found within he bounds of Dinosaur National Monument since the founding of the park 100 years ago this fall.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t that simple. Being a science fan didn’t give me a useful understanding of real science any more than reading Asimov made me a science fiction writer. I needed to understand academia and peer review in order to work with scientists, not to mention half the words I saw the first time I actually downloaded a scientific paper after paying a $30 fee to the journal it was published in. Science was not like any ad client I’d ever had, and there were no account planners to write a creative brief for me.

So school it was. I decided to aim for paleontology, because I knew my eight-year-old self would always resent me if I didn’t. I quickly found out that no one offered a bachelor’s degree in paleontology, so I applied to geology programs and ended up in the Geoscience department at Drexel University.

That’s how I found the Geological Society of America. At last year’s annual meeting in Vancouver, I presented a paleontology website I developed with Drexel’s Ken Lacovara. At the conference, I was told about the GeoCorps America program, and wondered if I qualified for any of the positions. As it happened, there was one that looked perfect: Dan Chure’s digital quarry mapping project at Dinosaur National Monument, offered in conjunction with the National Park Service’s Geoscientists-In-the-Parks (GIP) program. (I am now technically a GeoCorps participant, a GIP, and a National Park Service Volunteer.)

I remembered the wall of bones from a family road trip in 1997, and when I saw it again on my fourth day here, opposite the tragic stegosaurus mural, it was even larger and more spectacular than my fading, dream-like impression from childhood. This time, I got to climb on it. As Dan Chure told me, fewer people have set foot on the narrow ledges of that cliff than have played in the NFL.

Dinosaur National Monument is home to some of the most spectacular and confusing geology on the planet. The Mitten Park Fault is visible in this panorama, towering above the Green River, as seen from Harper's Corner. The other geology interns and I explore the park's many trails every chance we get.

Dinosaur National Monument is home to some of the most spectacular and confusing geology on the planet. The Mitten Park Fault is visible in this panorama, towering above the Green River, as seen from Harper’s Corner.  I explore the park’s many trails every chance I get.

One of the things I’ve noticed about paleontologists is that they never seem bored with their jobs, and Dan Chure is no exception. At least once a week, usually two or three times, he gathers his four geology volunteers (Marie Jimenez, who is in the NPS-GSA Mosaics in Science program, Elliott Smith, Trinity Stirling and myself) and eagerly asks if we’re up for an adventure. We’ve hiked trails, explored canyons, helped the park botanist pull invasive weeds from the banks of the Yampa River, excavated sandstone blocks full of skeletons, examined dinosaur footprints with visiting paleontologists, and even once made a trek across the street to the maintenance building, where an old painting of a Stegosaurus with hilariously misinterpreted anatomy resides. It has human ears.

The work we were actually brought here for has been indoors, largely inside the windowless archives library, and it doesn’t make for an exciting field work story. But it is important, and it’s had its own challenges and victories.

One of the first things Chure showed us was the room of archives that need to be digitized. A couple of flatbed scanners were provided to make it happen. I’d been playing around with mobile apps that made document scanning with my phone easy and fast. Elliott found one called CamScanner that assembled multi-page pdfs, and when I asked if we could get lights to make sure the pages could be read easily with an iPad camera, Chure produced a pair of studio softlights seemingly like magic. Suddenly we had technology and a workflow that sped up the archiving process exponentially.

Most of the project work is done in the Resource Management building on computers. The file open here is an Adobe Illustrator document created by last year's GeoCorps participants. It has proved vital to the work we're trying to complete this summer.

Most of the project work is done in the Resource Management building on computers. The file open here is an Adobe Illustrator document created by last year’s GeoCorps participants. It has proved vital to the work we’re trying to complete this summer.

This week I started tackling a proof of concept for the digital quarry map. Last year’s GIP/GeoCorps participants made a huge Adobe Illustrator file with outlines of almost all the bones in the quarry, and I was able to export a small portion of the map as a scalable vector graphic, which is perfect for use in websites. As of writing, I have a Diplodocus leg live on a test website with bones that light up in different colors when you roll a mouse pointer over them. The tibia is red, the metatarsals cyan, etc. If you click, a modal window pops up. There’s not much information in the window yet, but there will be, including links to the relevant documents we’ve already scanned. It’s a modest demo, but it’s proof that everything Dan Chure has dreamed of is possible, and that we may even be able to finish a nice chunk of it this summer–even with my time here almost halfway over.

An in-progress prototype of the interactive Digital Quarry we're working on. My goal is to have a working demo completed by the end of my GeoCorps internship.

An in-progress prototype of the interactive Digital Quarry we’re working on. My goal is to have a working demo completed by the end of my GeoCorps internship.

Realizing it was week five felt a bit like realizing I was 31 on my last birthday, the day before this project started. There’s more to do than ever, and less time than I imagined to get it done in. It’s not surprising that people assume, when I tell them how I got here after working in advertising first, that I wasted my twenties, or made some mistake, or have a lot of regrets. They’re wrong. Geoscience isn’t something I chose to replace my career in communication; it’s something I chose to expand it. I still love the challenges that attracted me to writing and digital media in the first place, and now I see countless ways to apply those skills to natural science, my first passion, even if I never finish a geology degree.

I’m not the only outsider with something to contribute. This winter, I attended a community college field course on the natural history of a Bay Area wildlife refuge. A class of roughly twenty walked through wetland paths filled with today’s colorful, diverse dinosaurs: migratory waterfowl, sandpipers, Bonaparte’s gulls and Lincoln’s sparrows. I made conversation with one of the women in attendance. She was working in advertising, but had always loved science, and now she was trying to find a way to contribute to the field she couldn’t stop reading about. I felt a chill.

As I listened to the stories of the other students, I realized they were all working professionals, all passionate about natural history, all looking for some way to apply their existing talent and hard-earned experience to something that actually seemed like it mattered. Many of them had run up against the same walls I had, namely the financial barriers of returning to school after working full time and the paywalls of academic journals that prevented them from expanding their knowledge beyond the increasingly questionable science journalism filling their social media feeds.

Every one of them has something to offer natural history. They’re writers, designers, programmers, photographers and people who are observant and learn quickly, who for whatever reason think nature is awesome. They don’t need “blood and guts” to grab their attention, or museum explanations in small words on weekends: those tactics already worked on them when they were kids. Now they need access to the scientists and institutions who would benefit most from their skills.

The GIP/GeoCorps America program has been my access point, more so in many ways than my overpriced attempt at a second degree. I found this opportunity by accident, while juggling work, school and family, after doubling my existing debt with private student loans so that I could legitimize myself in the eyes of scientists.

Being part of the National Park Service is awesome. I can't express how proud I am to be serving this organization.

Being part of the National Park Service is awesome. I can’t express how proud I am to be serving this organization.

As much as I’ve benefitted from it as a science outsider, the GIP/GeoCorps program was strictly designed for geoscientists–not communications professionals. Part of me still feels like I found some loophole, like I don’t belong here, like someone else deserves it more than me. Like I’m not a real scientist. These feelings would have stopped people less stubborn than I am–and the loss would not necessarily be theirs.

The feeling of being excluded from scientific fields is nearly universal in our modern culture, and it makes average citizens resentful and afraid of scientific advancement and research. “Why are our tax dollars going to that,” they say. “Genetic engineering is evil.” “Drones are only for war.” “Climate change is propaganda.” “Evolution is a lie.” It’s the fields of science themselves that hurt most from this way of thinking, as voters follow their fears and research funding becomes ever more elusive.

Yet people like me, and the community college students I walked through the wetlands with, don’t merely tolerate science. We love science. We seek out ways to simply be near it, by taking classes, joining community labs or giving our free time to citizen science projects. When we run up against the paywalls of academic journals, we feel confused and, honestly, a little hurt. “I thought science wanted help,” we think. Yet here it is excluding us, after trying so hard to recruit us when we were children.

What Dan Chure and my fellow GIP/GeoCorps participants are doing for the wall of bones–taking it from a cliff face accessible by only a privileged few, and putting it into a format that anyone can explore and learn from–programs like GIP/GeoCorps can help accomplish for all of science. It was my label as a geoscience student that opened this door for me, but it’s been my experience as a digital media and communications professional that’s served the project and the park for the past six weeks.

The blog where I’m keeping track of my summer is called The Futurist Naturalist. The name has a lot of meaning for me. I got sick of hearing only denial or doom in the popular discourse on the environment, so I came up with an ethos of my own, which I’ve been able to refine here at Dinosaur. I try to write about forward-looking ecology efforts, digital public outreach, how technology can help the environment, and local achievements that go unheard in popular media, but whose aggregate is saving this planet, one watershed, riverbank or forest at a time.

I opened this article with a vision of the distant past. Now I’ll close with a possible future. I’ve been watching it unfold between the headlines, and I’ve come to know it up close through my work in the GIP/GeoCorps program. Sharing it has become the goal of my career.

Envision this future not as a Camarasaurus studying the denizens of some far-off existence it will never know, but as one of the mammals–bold, clever tool-users–whose role is to create it.

In the cool shade of ferns and horsetails, at the edge of a sparkling river, a young animal lowers its head to drink. It is the dinosaur Haliaeetus leucocephalus. It looks up at its parents soaring above, their deep brown wings spread wide, white heads following yellow beaks forward.

Like its ancient relative the Stegosaurus, it once faced extinction. Today it spreads its own broad wings and takes flight, carefree, looking at the world below as it rises.

It’s a green world, speckled with clean cities, whose inhabitants celebrate science because it’s theirs, accessible and welcoming, as it was always meant to be.


The National Park Service Geoscientists-in-the-Parks Program, created in 1996 is run in partnership with the GeoCorps America Program of the Geological Society of America (GSA).  GSA partners with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the National Park Service (NPS).

Image Credit: Sierra Club

Image Credit: Sierra Club

New York is protecting its air and water by banning fracking. This continues our tradition of having other states and countries bear the environmental costs of our energy use. Whether or not this is ultimately good or bad for the environment writ large very much remains to be seen. I hope that it is.

The only truly clean energy is the energy you don’t use. If we’re not allowing fracking to happen in New York, we need to think about what to do instead. In the short term, it’s very likely that we’ll continue to use a lot of natural gas within the state, and a lot of that gas will come from hydraulically fractured wells in other states (mostly Pennsylvania). According to the US Energy Information Administration, most homes and businesses in New York are heated with natural gas and it provides 45% of our electricity. New York gets twice as much energy from natural gas as from any other source (gasoline is #2) and 98% of that natural gas comes from out of state. As Pennsylvania’s production has grown 17-fold since 2007 and it is now the second biggest producer (after Texas), the lion’s share of the gas New York uses almost certainly comes from wells in Pennsylvania. It raises interesting and important ethical questions to ban the production of something, but not the use.

Noting these realities doesn’t make me pro- or anti-fracking, but raises questions that deserve to be discussed. The discussion should reflect at least basic understandings of the science and mathematics of the energy system. Fundamental to that is recognizing that renewables are generally less bad for the environment than fossil fuels, but they have very real negative environmental impacts as well. Presently, we cannot make much in the way of renewable energy infrastructure without using fossil fuels and nuclear power to do so. We also can’t do it without copper and rare earths and both of those have substantial environmental impacts associated with their extraction.

Renewables also are generally lower in energy density than fossil fuels and nuclear, meaning that they require huge amounts of space to produce energy on the scale we are accustomed to and that has substantial environmental impacts. For example, Cornell University now has the largest solar array in Upstate New York. It covers 11 acres and provides about one percent of Cornell’s energy demand. So, we would need 1100 acres to meet the current needs of that one single (granted, fairly large) institution. New York has ten power plants with production capacities exceeding 1,000 megawatts. In the space of any one of those power plants, there is room enough for a few 1.5 megawatt windmills. Of course, once renewable sources are online, the wind and the sun, not dirtier fuels fuel them.

Fossil fuels have both made modern society possible and imperil modern society. We’ve reached a point where we almost certainly need to leave the vast majority of the remaining supplies of these wonderful and terrible fuels in the ground. We need to remake our energy infrastructure and how we use that infrastructure. We also need to face the reality that we have to use the infrastructure we have to make the infrastructure we need. If we were to rely only on renewables to make renewables, it would take many, many decades.

I do grant my hardiest congratulations to my many friends in the environmental community who helped make this ban happen. I hope they will continue onto the next step of figuring out how we can power our society in ways that are genuinely sustainable and not simply burdening other states and countries with the environmental costs of our actions. I suspect the most effective way forward in the short term is to continue and accelerate the general decrease in energy demand of the last several years.

Don Duggan-Haas, PhD, Director of Teacher Programs at the Paleontological Research Institution.

With financial support from the National Science Foundation, Duggan-Haas along with PRI colleagues Robert Ross and Warren Allmon, co-authored of The Science Beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale. The opinions expressed here represent Duggan-Haas’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of GSA, PRI or the National Science Foundation.

An abridged version of this blog first appeared in the Buffalo News on 15 January, 2015.  This version published with permission.

Garden Park Fossil Area, near Cañon City, CO

Garden Park Fossil Area, near Cañon City, CO

Greetings, my name is Ben Merrill, former GeoCorps™ America (GeoCorps) participant, and it is my pleasure to be writing this contribution to the Geological Society of America Guest Blog. I am here to fill you in on why you, as a geoscience student, should be applying for the GeoCorps Program right now. Luckily for you, positions starting this summer were just posted on December 1st. First, let me fill you in on why I am an expert on this subject. During the summer of 2012, I was a GeoCorps participant working as a Paleontologist for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – Royal Gorge Field Office in Cañon City, Colorado. This was one of the most formative times of my life for several reasons. I was granted the opportunity to spend the summer in beautiful Colorado, a part of the USA that I never had the chance to visit prior to that summer. I was also able to gain valuable on-the-job experience by learning the expectations and daily routine of a professional geologist working for the BLM. This experience has not only made it easier for me to find quality jobs post-graduation, but has also made me a more well-rounded and professional individual. Here are a few specific examples of why you should begin your GeoCorps America Program application today.

Get the experience you need to excel as a professional geoscientist

 

Collecting photo point data in the Garden Park Fossil Area

Collecting photo point data in the Garden Park Fossil Area

As a GeoCorps America participant, you won’t be the office lackey who spends the day answering phones and picking up coffee for the office (yes, many “internships” are just that). GeoCorps participants are assigned at least one major project to work on during their assignment. These projects are important to the federal offices that seek out GeoCorps participants. In fact, these are the same projects that professional geologists would be working on themselves if they didn’t have the help of a GeoCorps participant. Therefore, not only are you gaining valuable experience that you’ll need to find jobs later, but the work is truly fulfilling. The project that you’re working on is valued as a professional product that will be used by the federal agency you work for.

Collecting photo point data in the Garden Park Fossil Area

Collecting photo point data in the Garden Park Fossil Area

During my four months at the Royal Gorge Field Office, I worked on building and implementing an Inventory and Monitoring Program for vulnerable paleontological sites in the historic Garden Park Fossil Area. I also worked on cleaning up and adding data to the Royal Gorge Field Office’s database of paleontological sites throughout the area that this field office is responsible for (all Colorado public lands east of the Rockies). As a result of these projects, I gained valuable experience using GIS, GPS, and writing professional reports, among many other skills.

Meet amazing people and make the professional contacts you need

Garden Park Fossil Area

Garden Park Fossil Area

Making professional contacts is an extremely important aspect of succeeding as a professional geoscientist. Many will tell you throughout life that “it’s all about who you know.” From the great folks managing the GeoCorps America Program to the people you’ll be working with if accepted, you will be able to make professional contacts who will help you succeed long after your assignment ends. If you’re lucky like I was (and something tells me this isn’t uncommon in the GeoCorps Program), these people will also become good friends. I know that, for me, it would be almost impossible to find quality jobs if I didn’t have the professional contacts and references I made through my GeoCorps experience.

Spend the summer in an amazing new place

Backcountry lake (caught some nice rainbow trout here) in the Sangre de Cristo mountains

Backcountry lake (caught some nice rainbow trout here) in the Sangre de Cristo mountains

When I first stumbled upon the list of available GeoCorps positions in December of 2011, part of the allure was the opportunity to work in a place that I’d never been before. I applied to positions in Montana, Idaho, and Colorado. Luckily for me, I was accepted to the one I wanted the most. During my summer in Cañon City, I worked as a BLM Paleontologist during the week and explored the various mountain ranges of Colorado on the weekends. Not a bad way to spend a summer, eh? I spent my weekends in the San Juans, the Front Range, the Sangre de Cristos, and Great Sand Dunes National Park to name a few notable adventures. I also went whitewater rafting on the famous Royal Gorge canyon run. I would never have had these opportunities if not for my GeoCorps project with the BLM Royal Gorge Field Office.

IMG_1873

The GeoCorps™ America Program is one of the best opportunities out there for geoscience students right now. The experiences afforded by a position with GeoCorps are life changing on both a personal and professional level, and are priceless in today’s competitive job market. It can seem difficult to find quality, practical experiences in the geoscience field. Trust me, I was there. Luckily, a visit to the GeoCorps program positions page will bring up over 125 amazing opportunities for summer 2015. These positions were just posted at the beginning of the month, so head over there right now and start filling out your application today!

Seoul, Korea was the last city and the last leg of my GSA Distinguished International Lecture Tour.  We started in Songdo International City, a new development along the shoreline at Incheon.

Central Park in Songdo International City is a popular place for residents to visit.

Central Park in Songdo International City is a popular place for residents to visit.

There I spoke to high school students at Chadwick International School, and then at the new Songdo Global University, where University of Utah has its newly emerging Asia campus.

The new Songdo Global University incorporates programs from several institutions including the University of Utah – Asia Campus.

The new Songdo Global University incorporates programs from several institutions including the University of Utah – Asia Campus.

From Incheon, we moved to the most prominent university of South Korea–Seoul National University (SNU). Like many other cities of Asia, the tentacles of Seoul are vast.

Seoul is the capital city of South Korea with a metropolitan area of > 25 million people.

Seoul is the capital city of South Korea with a metropolitan area of > 25 million people.

Our host Prof. Yong Il Lee (SNU) used military precision timing to get us in and out of the city to see the highlights that we thought would be impossible to cover.  Those sights included a night tour of city lights and bridges, the secret garden of Changdeokung Palace, the Bukchon Hanok village, and Seoul Tower (all the way to the top!).  Our visit in Seoul was less than a week, and like most places on my tour, it would have been fun to stay longer.

The Seoul Tower (here shown lit at night) is the highest point in Seoul.

The Seoul Tower (here shown lit at night) is the highest point in Seoul.

My husband and I enjoyed the view of the city from Seoul Tower.

My husband and I enjoyed the view of the city from Seoul Tower.

The Bukchon Hanok village has narrow streets and traditional architecture (foreground).  The Seoul Tower is on the right horizon.

The Bukchon Hanok village has narrow streets and traditional architecture (foreground). The Seoul Tower is on the right horizon.

The South Gate (Namdaemun) of Seoul has been restored and is considered the country’s No. 1 National Treasure.

The South Gate (Namdaemun) of Seoul has been restored and is considered the country’s No. 1 National Treasure.

With commitments for the 2014 GSA Annual Meeting, I flew from Seoul to Vancouver without a break.  It is with a bit of nostalgia that I say this is the end of what has been a wonderful experience.  I logged enough miles to reach gold medallion status with Delta airlines, another first for me.  I enjoyed being an ambassador for both GSA and the University of Utah.  I am thankful for the many fond memories of delightful students, colleagues, and scenes and flavors of international lands and cultures.

– Margie

by Karen Paczkowski – GSA Science Policy Fellow

Geoscientists from around the country came to Capitol Hill on September 17-18, for the 7th Annual Geoscience Congressional Visits Day (GeoCVD). This two day event, organized by GSA and other geoscience societies, is designed to increase the visibility of geoscience and engagement of geoscientists in public policy. The event is centered around small-group meetings with Representatives, Senators, Congressional Committees, and their core staff members on Capitol Hill, with this year’s event totaling over 100 congressional office meetings. The event also includes an extensive training session to make each of these meetings impactful.

Geoscientists meet with Rep. Chet Edwards (R-TX, third from right) during the 2008 Geosciences Congressional Visits Day.

Geoscientists meet with Rep. Chet Edwards (R-TX, third from right) during the 2008 Geosciences Congressional Visits Day.

During the training participants learn the basics of public policy, the outlook for federal funding of geoscience research and education, and gain first hand advice from a panel of congressional staff on how to conduct effective congressional meetings. Scientists learn to formulate their message to legislators, invoking their own research as an example of the importance of federal investment in the geosciences. The training is designed to make participants comfortable with the policy process and able to engage policy makers about their science. Erin Lecky, a current STEPPE intern with GSA, can attest, “It is such a critical time for geoscientists to become engaged in the policy process, but few of us know where to begin. I am so pleased that I got to participate in GeoCVD. This program not only helped me overcome my nervousness, but even made it enjoyable to begin relationships with my congresspeople.”

Tanya Del Valle, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, participates in the 2009 Geosciences Congressional Visits Day.

Tanya Del Valle, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, participates in the 2009 Geosciences Congressional Visits Day.

GeoCVD participants are all invited to the US Geological Survey (USGS) Coalition Reception on Capitol Hill, which recognizes policy makers who are champions for the geosciences. This year, Senators Murkowski (R-AK), Wyden (D-OR), Udall (D-CO), and Heller (R-NV) were honored for their support of USGS programs through their bipartisan work as the lead sponsors of the Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2013. As Kasey White, the Director for Geoscience Policy at GSA and the Treasurer for the USGS Coalition stated, “Their bipartisan work on the Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2013 has helped increase awareness of the important role the USGS plays in assessing domestic and global mineral resources. The Senators clearly understand that we all benefit every day from USGS science. The agency’s research and information contribute to economic growth, improve public health and safety, and enhance our ability to smartly manage our biological, hydrological and geological resources.

Kasey White presents the 2013 USGS Coalition Leadership Award to Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) for his support of hazard and other USGS research.

Kasey White presents the 2013 USGS Coalition Leadership Award to Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) for his support of hazard and other USGS research.

As these and other geoscience issues increasingly appear in the public and policy spheres, geoscientists need to take an active role in informing the policy process. Congressional visits are a great opportunity for geoscientists to come together and present a unified voice about the importance of federal investment in geoscience research and education, as well as build lasting relationships with their representatives as scientific resources for geoscience relevant policy. GSA Past President John Geissman, also a participant in this year’s GeoCVD, stressed this by saying, “My experience at the 2014 Geosciences CVD was most rewarding and informative, and I very much appreciate the efforts of all of the organizers.  Yes, although the word on the Hill regarding federal support for science and technology is certainly not rosy for the near future, it is clearly important for the geoscience community to continue to interact with, and provide support on numerous issues for our nation’s decision makers.”

GSA Executive Director Jack Hess and UCAR scientist Betsy Weatherhead discuss science funding with Senator Bennet.

GSA Executive Director Jack Hess and UCAR scientist Betsy Weatherhead discuss science funding with Senator Bennet during the 2012 Geosciences Congressional Visits Day.

A consistent presence of scientists on Capitol Hill sends a powerful reminder to policy makers of the need not only to verbally support geoscience programs but to financially invest in them as well. By participating in the GeoCVD geoscientists put a face on and personal story behind scientific investment and advocate for the need of continued, robust support for geoscience research and education. The GeoCVD is held annually and is open to all geoscientists. For further information about GeoCVD and on how to participate check out GSA’s CVD website.

by Nick Eyles and Andrew D. Miall – Department of Earth Sciences, University of Toronto

Disclaimer: This post is a guest reflection piece and is not intended to represent the Society’s official position on climate change.

In 2010, we published what is now a best-selling (and award-winning) book Canada Rocks-The Geologic Journey aimed at telling the dramatic story for a public audience of how Canada (and North America) has evolved over the last 4 billion years. It was a milestone in our professional and personal lives as we went on many field trips to fill in gaps in our own understanding and in the process stepped well beyond our own areas of expertise. We learned much about this fantastic country and its geology.

What is patently obvious from reviewing Canada’s ancient history is that scientists still do not have an adequate understanding of Earth’s complex systems on which to base sound economic and environmental policy. From the upper reaches of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans onwards to the deep interior of the planet our knowledge of complex earth systems is still rather rudimentary. Huge areas of our planet are inaccessible and are little known scientifically. There is still also much to learn from reading the rock record of how our planet functioned in the past.

In so many areas, we simply don’t know enough of how our planet functions.

And yet……

Scarcely a day goes past without some group declaring the next global environmental crisis; we seemingly stagger from one widely proclaimed crisis to another each one (so we are told) with the potential to severely curtail or extinguish civilization as we know it. It’s an all too familiar story often told by scientists who cross over into advocacy and often with the scarcely-hidden sub-text that they are the only ones with the messianic foresight to see the problem and create a solution. Much of our science is what we would call ‘crisis-driven’ where funding, politics and the media are all intertwined and inseparable generating a corrupting and highly corrosive influence on the scientific method and its students. If it doesn’t bleed it doesn’t lead is the new yardstick with which to measure the overall significance of research.

Charles Darwin ushered in a new era of thinking where change was expected and necessary. Our species as are all others, is the product of ongoing environmental change and adaption to varying conditions; the constancy of change. In the last 15 years or so however, we have seemingly reverted to a pre-Darwinian mode of a fixed ‘immutable Earth’ where any change beyond some sort of ‘norm’ is seen in some quarters as unnatural, threatening and due to our activities, usually with the proviso of needing ‘to act now to save the planet.’ Honest scientific discourse and debate is often rendered impossible in the face of the ‘new catastrophism.’

Trained as geologists in the knowledge of Earth’s immensely long and complex history we appreciate that environmental change is normal. For example, rivers and coastlines are not static. Those coasts, in particular, that consist of sandy strand-plains and barrier-lagoon systems are continually evolving as sand is moved by the waves and tides. Cyclonic storms (hurricanes), a normal component of the weather in many parts of the world, are particularly likely to cause severe erosion. When recent events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy cause catastrophic damage, and spring storms cause massive flooding in Calgary or down the Mississippi valley, and droughts and wildfires affect large areas of the American SW these events are blamed on a supposed increase in the severity of extreme weather events brought about by climate change. In fact, they just reflect the working of statistical probability and long term climate cyclicity. Such events have happened in the past as part of ongoing changes in climate but affected fewer people. That the costs of weather and climate-related damage today are far greater is not because of an increased frequency of severe weather but the result of humans insisting on congregating and living in places that, while attractive, such as floodplains, mountain sides and beautiful coastlines, are especially vulnerable to natural disasters. Promises of a more ‘stable future’ if we can only prevent climate change are hopelessly misguided and raise unnatural expectations by being willfully ignorant of the natural workings of the planet. Climate change is the major issue for which more geological input dealing with the history of past climates would contribute to a deeper understanding of the nature of change and what we might expect in the future. The past climate record suggests in fact that for much of the Earth’s surface future cooling is the norm. Without natural climate change Canada would be buried under ice 3 km thick; that is it normal state for most of the last 2.5 million years with 100,000 years-long ice ages alternating with brief, short-lived interglacials such as the present which is close to its end.

It is self-evident to us that the public debate concerning environmental change largely lacks an understanding of natural variability. Since the last Ice Age ended, some 12,000 years ago, Earth has been through several periods lasting hundreds of years and possibly longer when it was either warmer or colder than at present. Several earth scientists have suggested that a study of natural variability over recent geologic time should be completed in order to provide a baseline against which anthropogenic change may be evaluated, but this important history has not been introduced fully into the public debate, and is a long way off. It has to be said that the natural variability of the last few thousand years or hundreds of years or tens of years has formed almost no part in the ongoing discussion of climate change which in some circles assumes that any change since 1940 is largely man-made. This opinion is uninformed by geologic science.

The way forward it strikes us is for more scientific honesty and less politics, less grandstanding. ‘We don’t know’ is an honourable credo for scientists. In this regard, we need more science to be directed to the environment, particularly toward better planning of the world’s communities to make them more resilient in the face of change. And it is an increasingly urban face that our planet presents. The many large supercities of the rapidly-approaching future world will be absolutely massive consumers of resources and producers of wastes; they will be the biggest determinants of our global environmental footprint; and it is surely there that much of our effort should be spent. Today, the rate of change of some parts of the world, especially in regard to urbanization and the ‘rush to the city’ is taxing our abilities simply to map and assess the environmental repercussions of transforming a natural environment to a built landscape. There is no simple technological fix either. Satellite and other monitoring data for example still has to be collected, interpreted, ground truthed, and acted on; steps available only to wealthier countries. In large areas of the planet the lack of human and financial resources, equality and personal freedoms and political choices trump any global environmental concerns and hobble international co-operation. To these people our obsession with saving the environment must ring hollow. The onus here is on the wealthiest nations with the largest scientific academies to put forward credible notions of how our planet is changing and to discuss the possible origins in an intellectual environment where data gaps are fully acknowledged free of catastrophic overtones.

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

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