Monday, November 30, 2015

Geosciences Congressional Visits Day (Geo-CVD): Citizen scientists on Capitol Hill

The last week in September this year (2015), I attended the 8th annual Geosciences Congressional Visits Day (Geo-CVD;; in Washington, DC. The purpose of Geo-CVD is to bring scientists to Capitol Hill to emphasize to members of the US Congress, both in the Senate and the House of Representatives, the importance of federal science funding, specifically in the earth and space sciences. The US federal budget supports basic geoscience programs and research directly in the work of various federal departments and agencies (including but not limited to USGS, NASA, NOAA, NIST, DOE) and in research grant programs to academia (the National Science Foundation: NSF).

The participating geoscience societies include several member societies of the American Geoscience Institute (AGI) plus the American Meteorological Society (AMS). Societies will post announcements for Geo-CVD on their website or sometimes by e-mail. Geo-CVD is two days every September. An afternoon workshop is on Day One, and Day Two are the constituent scientist visits to offices of Representatives, Senators and staff of various committees. The workshop includes an overview of the legislative process including budget and appropriations, overview of science funding and specific legislation of interest to the geoscience community, the Message and “Ask” for the visits, and the opportunity to meet one’s constituent scientist team for the visits. Workshop speakers include professional society policy staff, and current and past Congressional Science Fellows who give their advice, from the legislative staff perspective, on a successful and productive constituent visit.

Some societies also offer a pre-CVD webinar for participants. Besides background on legislative processes and what to expect of the event, the webinar offers tips on what to bring for the visit. Business attire is strongly recommended, which means, obviously, jacket and tie for men, even though DC in September can still be steamy and warm. I smiled in agreement as I read Ryan Haupt's Geo-CVD blog post description of the sweaty humidity on our visits day this year: it was spot on. My Pennsylvania (PA) delegation was also sweated through, but suit jackets nicely hide the evidence. Women's business attire can be a suit with skirt or dress slacks, a dress, or blouse with skirt or trousers: channel the style of newswomen or commentators on Sunday morning news shows, debate wear of female presidential candidates, or, to echo Ryan's West Wing reference, fictional press secretary CJ Craig. The perennial recommendation to wear comfortable shoes is no joke: "Did you know that the city planners, when they sat down to design Washington, D.C., their intention was to build a city that would intimidate and humble foreign heads of state?" said fictional President Andrew Shepherd in The American President. The size and spacing of the Capitol and flanking Senate and House office buildings is formidable, and, while meeting schedulers try avoid multiple crossings of Capitol Hill in their appointment flow, it sometimes can't be avoided. (This year, some women wore really comfortable footwear between buildings and changed into stiffer stylish business shoes before entering.)

One “must-bring” is business cards. They are the currency of meetings, many times the first thing exchanged just after formal greetings. I noticed this year that a few Congressional staff members would line the cards up in front of him/her on the conference table to keep our names front and center during our conversation. I have attended five previous Congressional Visits Days (2001, 2011-14) and have kept all the cards of staff members met. While there is a lot of turnover among Hill staff (the average age is 26), sometimes one will see the same staff members year-to-year. For example, this year, the legislative aide we met in a western Pennsylvania representative's office, was, as I knew from my card collection, a former aide for PA Senator Patrick Toomey that spoke with our PA Geo-CVD delegation the last two years. Pointing out our previous meetings was an icebreaker, and his familiarity with Geo-CVD was appreciated. In both 2013 and 2014, we met with Senator Casey's Legislative Chief of Staff: in 2014, he said something like "good to see you again, MaryAnn" without taking my card first. Whether he actually remembered me (probably not), or just checked his last year's notes and business cards right before the meeting, I was flattered and impressed.

Another recommended "leave-behind" is a one-page summary of one's own research or work, how it is impacted by federal science programs, how it may be important to one's Congressional district/state, and what kind of expertise one may offer to the office. For several years, I used the Pennsylvania state geologic map postcards, gluing to the back a very brief typed synopsis of my contact information, area of specialization, and past research. (One year, a staff member said my previous year’s map card was on a bulletin board: even if my information was hidden, geology of Pennsylvania was front and center.)  This year, I printed out the one page Pennsylvania Coal Distribution Map since most offices visited were in traditional PA coal mining areas and then printed my information on the backside; I had more space to list what agencies had funded or supported my graduate school, postdoc, and other research. Our Pennsylvania group also visited the office of a West Virginia Senator (one of our group was a West Virginia University alumnus and had done consulting work in WV) so for that office I put my information on the back of a WV coal distribution map.

As mentioned above, the afternoon workshop importantly outlines the unifying Message of the visits (quoted from our workshop material):
“Strong and sustained federal investments in geoscience will:
   -Support resilient communities
   -Strengthen our global and economic competitiveness
   -Enhance national security
   -Sustain a highly skilled workforce
and from that "The Ask":
“Support strong federal investments in geoscience research and education”.

Specific legislation of concern is also outlined in the workshop which this year (2015) was the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R.1806) and the House Commerce-Justice-Science Committee appropriations bill (H.R.2578) that both include NSF funding levels. America COMPETES recommended levels of funding for several federal science research agencies, while the appropriations bill sets the actual agency levels for the coming fiscal year. In both, while overall NSF funding increased, the funding level for the Geoscience Directorate decreased from previous years. The bills also set a precedent by specifying funding levels for science directorates, rather than the traditional practice of allowing the agency (NSF) to make decisions on internal directorate allocations. The House version of America COMPETES passed in May 2015, before our visit, but the Senate version had not. Therefore, in our Senate visits, we urged reconsideration of NSF directorate level funding limits in their proposed legislation, while in the House visits, we emphasized the same in the case that the bill goes to conference: a conference committee made of House and Senate members works out any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The resulting bill returns to the House and Senate for final approval.” *

Part of the reason for the decrease in geoscience funding was, as John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), said during a special lecture at the 2015 GSA annual meeting in Baltimore, is “Appropriation bills to date reflect the apparent view of some in Congress that support for Earth observations and geosciences equates to support for the President’s climate change policies.” Therefore, one of our objectives on Geo-CVD was to emphasize the range of fields and job opportunities under the umbrella of geoscience. The variety within our Pennsylvania team was an excellent example: industry (two petroleum consulting geologists), academia (me and a Penn State meteorology graduate student), and government (my 2006-08 postdoctoral fellowship with the US Geological Survey: Chesapeake Bay impact crater post-impact thermal study and relationship to current groundwater quality). A letter from a consortium of academic institutions and professional societies, The Federal Investment in Geosciences Contributes to the Nation’s Economic Competitiveness, to members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, also focuses on the range of impacts, including jobs, STEM education, hazards, energy, from geoscience research.
For the visits, scientists are organized in teams representing one or two states, depending on how many from each state attend. For the five Geo-CVD I have attended, the number of other PA attendees has varied from zero to three, and the participants, besides me, have been different every year. The afternoon workshop allows team members to meet each other and their policy staff chaperone, get to know each other’s specialties, plan who will be the lead speaker in each office, and practice or discuss what each person might say or focus on. The teams are also given “leave-behind” folders with information on the importance of geoscience, the highlight in 2015 being the AGI booklet, Geoscience for America’s Critical Needs. Besides our own research summaries, team members also added USGS fact sheets and bookmarks and professional society information.

The role of the chaperones, which are policy staff of the participating professional geoscience societies, is both subtle and critical to success of the visits. Our contact this year (2015) was the Policy Communications Adviser of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)** who had also booked our Pennsylvania team’s Congressional appointments; I have previously been with staff members of AGU (American Geophysical Union), AGI, and AMS. Frequently, the chaperone will accompany the teams on their appointments, although this year, with more state teams than policy staff and with two experienced CVD participants on our PA team, we were unescorted. Chaperones help with directions to offices, schedule maintenance, and sometimes gentle guidance of the conversation to make sure nothing gets left out. In my first CVD in April 2001 (SET-CVD), I erroneously structured my delivery to lead up to the “Ask”, pointing out first how geosciences research is important to Pennsylvania. In these meetings, which may be no longer than 15 minutes, there are no time-signal lights, as in a conference presentation, and time can fly. I was the only scientist in this meeting with a staff member of then-Senator Santorum and my AGI policy staff chaperone. As I was feeling myself even getting a little bored with my own delivery and anxious on time, my chaperone stepped in and masterfully guided the discussion to the “Ask” and point of our visit. The structure of the visit, as emphasized each year in the Geo-CVD workshop, should put the purpose (Message and Ask) first and up front, like the opening of a newspaper article (who, what, when, where, why) and not like an introductory paragraph of an essay or many science articles where one sets the scene first, leading up to the thesis statement or “punch line”. And with a group of scientists visiting an office, the team lead must get the visit’s purpose/message/ask out first, efficiently mention their research (impact on state/district and how the relevant federal funding is important), and quickly pass the conversation on to other team members so everyone gets to speak. The first meeting of the day may be less polished just because the team is developing a rhythm and feel for time and content.

The Congressional office visits are usually with legislative staff members, rather than the elected official, although in a few of my past House office visits, the Representative has been present. The Legislative Correspondents or Aides may or may not be the staff member covering science or energy, but they are the information gatherers who are conduits and synthesizers of data on issues for the Representative/Senator. Some may just say thank you at the end of the meeting, but others may have specific questions on exactly how much funding or what specific action the team is requesting. In our West Virginia Senate office visit this year, we were asked our opinion on ideal interval (in years) for America COMPETES reauthorizations. We each had a different suggestion, but did refer the office to specific policy staff members of AGU and AAPG**, our personal host societies this year, who could provide a consistent community response on that question.

An important purpose of any CVD is to offer oneself as an information resource to the Congressional office. Over the last 35 years, the number of scientists serving as Congressional office or committee staff has grown, with increasing numbers of Congressional Science Fellows, former Fellows who continue in legislative positions, and the occasional engineer/scientist who has segued into a legislative staff career. However, the number is still small, and having a state or district scientist as a direct resource, or who can refer the office to another scientist with the necessary expertise, is a valuable asset.

These face-to-face Capitol Hill visits should be the start of an ongoing dialogue on the importance of federal science support. Congressional staff is very busy, have many topics or issues to cover, and have visits with many other constituents and groups, so it is essential not to let the topic of the importance of science to the National interest fade. Any CVD visit should be followed up with a letter (e-mail is preferred over snail mail with its physical security screening) thanking the office for the visit, iterating "the Ask", the offer to be a resource, and other points discussed. While it is recommended that one continue contact with their Congressional offices, one does not have to do it each year in person during Geo-CVD or other science CVDs. Continued dialogue (or any outreach to members of Congress) can include written correspondence or in-state district visits. Such communication can mention appreciation for relevant sponsored legislation or voting positions, or a request for particular consideration of new science legislation or issues of concern. I have not been as frequent with that as I should, but a great resource for keeping up with science-related legislation, funding levels, and talking points are professional society public policy webpages (see the list at the bottom) or policy news alert services (such as Sometimes a society may also have letter templates for a specific issue that one can use as a base and then amend to make it more personal.

There are other non-medical/non-health-science Congressional Visits Days through out the year. A general and large Science-Engineering-Technology CVD (SET-CVD) occurs every spring. Geoscience member organizations for that event include AGI, AGU, and GSA, and one would contact one of those organizations if interested in participating. A few earth science societies, such as AGU, also sponsor their own CVDs that focus on issues of specific interest to their members, in addition to federal support for science agencies and STEM education.

For other stories on Congressional Visits Day experiences: (My summary of 2001 SET-CVD on pages 187-189 of this 320-page pdf of the 1999-2002 newsletters of The Society for Organic Petrology (TSOP- an AGI member society, AAPG affiliated society))

Earth Science Policy websites:
American Geophysical Union-

Congressional websites: (where one can look up the text and action on any House or Senate bill) (Senate homepage) (House of Representatives homepage)

* UPDATE, January 1, 2016: On the December 18, 2015, the House and Senate passed, and the President signed, the Consolidated Appropriations Act (HR 2029); NSF received $7.5 billion dollars with no legislative restrictions on individual directorate funding levels; summary at The success of keeping directorate funding decisions within NSF reflects the tireless work of numerous professional science and geoscience societies and institutions; Geo-CVD was one part of this effort.

** UPDATE 2017: AAPG's DC policy office was closed at end of 2016 due to society budget constraints

[Besides participation in various science CVDs, Maryann’s science policy or government experience includes GSA Geology and Public Policy Committee (1986-88), USGS postdoctoral fellowship (2006-08), and Foreign Service Officer, US Department of State (1973-76).]


  1. MaryAnn,

    It was a pleasure serving with you in the Pennsylvania contingent during the Fall 2015 CVD. Your thoughtful summary of our experiences communicating the need for robust federal science funding to legislative staff is excellent. Thank you for including so many additional science and legislative resources. I look forward to future science policy activities where we might collaborate again.

    1. Thank you, Caroline. I enjoyed our hiking the Hill together in the service of science. I am doing Geo-CVD again this year, and hoping for a cooler day. See you then or at another science policy activity in the future.