In its 14th year, the American Meteorological Society’s Summer Policy Colloquium boasts an impressive curriculum (last year’s is here), arguably the most comprehensive introduction to U.S. politics, the relevance of science and policy to each other, and the legislative process that is possible in 10 days.
Participants of the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium (SPC) in front of the Capitol Building.
The first two days of the program focused on policy fundamentals; each day we had morning lectures on the basics of U.S. politics and policy, the inner-workings of the congressional and executive branches, and the details of the U.S. budget and scientific funding. Notable among our list of speakers was Judy Schneider, who conducts orientation for all of the new members of Congress when they arrive in Washington. Her cold-calling approach was intimidating for most of the members of our cohort; few of the grad students and scientists had much (if any) knowledge of the rules of procedure for the House and Senate! However, it was the perfect introduction to Washington, and when we met with representatives from the Senate Finance Committee and the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, we knew the difference between committees and subcommittees, how their heads are determined, and how members’ offices and staffing typically work.
The third day was focused on international policy. As international development and multinational scientific collaborations are areas of personal interest and career goals, I found this day particularly exciting. We heard from Dr. Tegan Blaine, the Senior Climate Change Adviser for Africa at the US Agency for International Development, first. She shared that three departments oversee international development with respect to climate change adaptation: State, Treasury, and USAID, although other offices like USDA help with projects. The State Department’s efforts are focused on international partnerships around specific development initiatives such as clean energy, whereas the treasury funds projects such as REDD (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). USAID’s mission is distinguished in its incorporation of science and decision analysis and its focus on bilateral relationships. In her position as a specialist for Africa, she has to make funding allocations and prioritize various projects based on impact vs. need considerations, the United States’ international agenda, the host country’s priorities, and in-country capacity. Often she faces the question of where the investment (which is on a 3-5 year timeframe) will have the most lasting impact and where program implementation is most likely to be successful.
Following Dr. Blaine, we were addressed by Dr. Jonathan Pershing, the Principal Director of EPSA and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Climate Change Policy and Technology in International Affairs at the Department of Energy (what a title!). He spoke of his involvement with the Montreal ratification profess and the IPCC, as well as the U.S.’ role in the Copenhagen Accord. I found it refreshing to hear his optimism regarding follow-up to the Copenhagen Accord, which is a non-binding document of carbon emissions reductions produced through Obama’s leadership at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference. But what I found most thought-provoking were his distinctions between the ways that scientists and politicians think, distinctions of which I must be acutely aware if I end up pursing a career in Washington. He said that science, at its most fundamental level, is about what we don’t know. Policy takes what we do know and turns it into action. Scientists are focused on the best solution, whereas the best available solution is necessarily used in policy decisions. He also shared his thoughts on pursuing a career as a government scientist, sharing the perspective that scientists who generate good ideas alone make great professors and that those who come up with good ideas by working with 1,000 other people can be effective players in policy. Our final international speaker was Dr. Norman Neureiter, the Director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy and Center for Science Diplomacy of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (turns out few of our speakers’ titles were short). He spoke passionately about science as something countries can agree on even when they agree on just about nothing else. He highlighted the US-Russia collaboration on space, the 2001 US-Iran science collaboration on foodborne disease and air pollution, and the recent collaboration with North Korea on reforestation. Science, he argued, is transboundary in nature and is easier to communicate than politics. We also had an extended, dinnertime lecture delivered by Dr. Andrew light, a George Mason professor. He spoke of his role as Senior Adviser to the Special Enjoy on Climate Change at the State Department and provided an insider’s view and optimism about the U.N. climate negotiations. I had not thought so critically about science as a tool for international diplomacy prior to these lecture, although I left feeling energized about a potential career as a scientist in international relations and development.
The rest of the colloquium was filled with similarly compelling speakers and engaging exercises. (Gifford’s forthcoming entry will focus on our exercise in passing climate legislation.) Science communication instructors from the American Geophysical Union joined us on Thursday June 5 for exercises (storytelling, improv, bringing an “ask” to a congressional staffer, communicating with journalists, etc.) We also engaged in discussion with invited speakers on connecting with a public audience in general and to journalists and policy-makers in particular. On subsequent days, we focused on science opportunities in the military (I was not previously aware these existed), the leadership and funding of the National Science Foundation and its pertinent divisions, and the role and image of the National Hurricane Center. We also heard climate perspectives from the Senior Adviser for Infrastructure Resilience (Department of Housing and Urban Development) and a representative from the American Red Cross. A case study on water supply and scarcity illuminated the necessity of but systemic difficulties associated with collaboration between the US Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA, and the USGS.
The productive week culminated on an extremely high note, with four program alums speaking about their work. The closing speaker of the program, Dr. Ahsha Tribble, is a meteorologist who directly advised the President and his senior staff during hurricanes Sandy and Irene, among other disasters. She was an engaging and inspirational speaker who talked about the importance of taking opportunities when they arise, being open to learning something new, and not confining one’s self to pre-existing career paths.
In short, it was an illuminating and formative 10 days in which we had the privilege of interacting with accomplished and driven program participants, compelling speakers, and guests who have used their PhDs in the sciences to advance onto highly successful and impactful careers in policy. I left feeling grateful for the opportunity and feeling a little more certain that I’ll be moving ~500 miles south on I-95 after my time in Hanover comes to a close.
Julia Bradley-Cook receiving her Certificate of Achievement from Dr. Bill Hooke, Senior Policy Fellow and Associate Executive Director of the American Meteorological Society.