Sunday, January 12, 2020

Geosciences Congressional Visits Day (Geo-CVD): Citizen scientists on Capitol Hill – UPDATE 2020

This post is an update to my Congressional Visits Day post of 2015. Much of the text is the same, but references to legislation specific to 2015 have been removed, links have been updated, and a few new insights have been added.

The US Capitol, January 20, 2017, the night before the first Women's March.

In almost every September since 2011, I have attended the annual Geosciences Congressional Visits Day (Geo-CVD;; ) in Washington, DC. The purpose of Geo-CVD, begun in 2008, 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, Twitter, or sometimes by e-mail. Geo-CVD is two days every September. An afternoon workshop is on Day One; on 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 practical 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 in 2015: it was spot on. My Pennsylvania (PA) delegation was also sweated through that year, 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 Cregg. 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. (Some women wear really comfortable footwear between buildings and change 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 have noticed that a few Congressional staff members 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 kept all the cards of staff members met during all past Congressional Visits Days attended. 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, in 2015, 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 previous 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, what kind of expertise one may offer to the office, and your contact information. It should be understandable to non-scientists. For several years, I used the Pennsylvania state geologic map postcards from the Pennsylvania Geological Survey, 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.)  In 2015, 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. Dr. Matt Kohn of Boise State University describes in detail his development of a leave-behind for a non-CVD visit to his members of Congress in an August 2017 post of AGU's blog, The Bridge.

As mentioned above, the afternoon pre-visit workshop importantly outlines the unifying Message of the visits. Quoted below from our 2015 workshop material, this has been a perennial general ask:
“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”.

The “Ask” is the essential general component of a Congressional visit. I have unfortunately heard a few CVD participants claim they did not like or would not do the “Ask” because they think it is boring, not relevant, and would rather talk about issues, like climate change, or just offer themselves as information sources. I personally think this is missing the point of the visits: no matter what one’s issue of interest, most science-related legislation, to achieve desired goals, requires budgeted and appropriated funds for program implementation.

Each year in the pre-visit workshop, specific legislation of concern is also outlined. These are usually bills that have only passed one house or have not come out of committee and need a bit of advocacy to encourage action. CVD participants are also encouraged to research the Committees, caucuses and interests of the Senators and Representatives to be visited. This background knowledge allows one to be flexible and spontaneous depending on the flow of the conversation during a Congressional office visit. In a non-CVD visit in spring 2019 to a conservative Senator’s office, the level of enthusiasm of the staffer we met with seemed to be very low; she was taking few notes. The Senator was not on any science-related committees, but was on the Foreign Relations committee. The staffer’s interest, and notetaking, noticeably improved when I pointed out the national security role of nuclear test monitoring by DOE’s Los Alamos National Lab with NATO partners which were able to detect and locate 2017 North Korean subterranean bomb tests, within minutes of detonation.

Part of the reason for a decrease in geoscience funding during parts of the last several years was, as John Holdren, director of the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), said during a special lecture at the 2015 GSA annual meeting in Baltimore, “Appropriation bills to date reflect the apparent view of some in Congress that support for Earth observations and geosciences equates to support for” only “climate change policies.” Therefore, another objective of Geo-CVD is to emphasize the range of fields and job opportunities under the umbrella of geoscience, and how geoscientists contribute to communities. I have found flooding, earthquakes, and other hazards, and water issues in general are topics of interest to many constituencies.

For the visits, scientists are organized in teams representing one or two states, depending on how many from each state attend. For the eight Geo-CVD plus three other Congressional Visits events I have attended to this date, the number of other PA attendees has varied from zero to three, and the participants, besides me, have been different all but one time. 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 group “leave-behind” folders with information on the importance of geoscience. Besides our own research summaries, team members also sometimes add federal agency fact sheets or bookmarks (such as from USGS or NASA) 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. I have previously been with staff members of AGU (American Geophysical Union), GSA (Geological Society of America), AGI, AAPG (American Association of Petroleum Geologists) and AMS. The chaperone also books the specific office visits. Frequently, the chaperone will accompany the teams on their appointments, although some years if there are more state teams than policy staff, teams may be unescorted if there are experienced CVD constituents. Chaperones help with directions to offices, keeping on schedule, 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 geoscience 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 even myself 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 own 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. However, each team member must take responsibility to keep their delivery short: in one recent House office visit, one of our 4-member team (no chaperone) rambled on for 25 minutes so that no one else had a chance to talk! It is also natural for the first meeting of the day to be less polished 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, especially during visits that take place in the late winter when the next fiscal year’s budget is being formulated.

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 letters with their onerous 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. (It is important in any letter to have the point right in the first paragraph; my own experience is that staff may not read past the first paragraph in figuring out how to reply.)

There are other non-medical/non-health-science Congressional Visits Days throughout the year. A general and large Science-Engineering-Technology CVD (SET-CVD) occurs every spring. Geoscience member organizations for that event usually include 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 for invited participants 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)

[Besides participation in various science CVDs, Maryann’s science policy or government experience includes GSA Geology and Public Policy Committee (1986-88; 2018-21), USGS postdoctoral fellowship (2006-08), and Foreign Service Officer, US Department of State (1973-76).]

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