The Uneasy Courtship of Science and Politics

Eos Volume 83, Number 49, 3 December 2002

Timothy A. Cohn, Chair, AGU Committee on Public Affairs
Copyright 2002 by the American Geophysical Union

Po-li-ti-cal:  of or relating to government or the conduct of government

AGU’s Committee on Public Affairs (COPA) exists to serve the AGU community by raising awareness of political issues that affect science and by helping members communicate with their elected representatives.  [Note:  AGU does not participate in any electoral campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office, and the words “politics” and “political”, as used here, do not refer to activities related to electioneering or campaigns for office.]

COPA’s goal is to reach the entire AGU membership, but its efforts sometimes involve one member at a time.

In particular, each year COPA sponsors one scientist to learn about politics while providing scientific expertise to Capitol Hill as part of the AAAS Congressional Science Fellows program.

In 1995 I was chosen as AGU’s Congressional Science Fellow and spent a year working as a legislative assistant in the office of Senator Bill Bradley (D.N.J.).  I arrived with great confidence in science and serious doubts about our political system. A year later, my perspective had changed. As my confidence in our democratic processes grew, so did my recognition that scientists, almost alone among groups affected by government policies, were not playing their appropriate part in our system.

Senator Bradley was repeatedly visited by almost every interest group imaginable. The surf-clammers showed up monthly.  I talked with dozens of ranchers who graze livestock on federal lands.  New Jersey’s fumigators — who, I came to understand, provide the first line of defense against invasive species — called at least once each week.  The florists; the nuclear power industry; wool garment makers (accompanied by six memorable fashion models); Indian tribes; garden clubs; candy manufacturers; loggers and environmentalists (does every Oregon tree have its own lobbyist?); proponents and opponents of beach renourishment; and countless others.  They came intent on sharing their concerns and hopes, full of ideas about what the Senator should do.

These people understood something essential about the process of representative democracy:  They knew to show up (on time); to make a (succinct) case; to listen; to learn; to understand the Senator’s position on each issue — what’s carved in stone and what’s open for discussion; to link their issue to other issues that the Senator cared about; to explain why their request was consistent with the Senator’s policies and previous statements and votes.

Scientists, however, were notable mostly for their absence.  Those few scientists who did visit seemed unsure about how to ask for help, or even how to relate to a Hill staffer or member of Congress.   They usually retreated to simply explaining their research, perhaps believing that the staffer would immediately grasp its significance and recognize how it served the public.  However, despite my scientific background and desire to support their requests, I often had a hard time understanding the connections. My sense is that the scientists left frustrated; none returned for a second round.

Why do cowboys and clammers run circles around scientists on the Hill?

At one level it likely has to do with scientific training and cultural values. (For one thing, scientists are supposed to be objective, and politics is inherently subjective).   But I think there is also something else.

I once heard the comment that scientists’ approach to the political environment was analogous to the foreign traveler who, unable to speak the local language, cannot successfully order a drink and then doubts the natives’ intelligence. That isn’t quite right, of course.

For one thing, communication problems on the Hill are not so easily diagnosed.  Also, the world really would be better if all our representatives understood more about geology, physics and biology and could communicate in the language of science.  But that isn’t going to happen.  The best way for us scientists to become more effective in serving our society is to learn to communicate in the world of politics.  The American Geophysical Union’s Committee on Public Affairs is dedicated to this task.

We want your help.

Science is now inextricably linked to the political process, for better or for worse.  The time is long overdue to forge a better relationship between science and politics, for the health of both our science and our world. We know this is possible because it has happened in a number of specific cases, from geologic mapping to water quality to seismology, with enduring benefits to both science and the nation.

There are many ways to participate at the federal, state and local levels.  Here are some things you can do to get started:

  • Sign up for ASLA, AGU’s Science and Legislative Alerts, which provide brief descriptions of legislation or other news at the national, state, and local levels affecting the geophysical sciences
  • Visit the AGU Science and Policy website)
  • Get to know your Congressional delegation
  • Develop a good relationship with key Congressional staff
  • Make friends with your university federal relations director
  • Participate in Congressional Visits Days
  • Become a Congressional Science Fellow
  • Volunteer to serve on COPA!