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Fall 2001

Scientists get a first-hand look at policy making

by Bob Henson

Participants at the AMS-UCAR Summer Policy Colloquium included (left to right) NCAR scientist Rebecca Morss, UCAR associate scientist Wendy Abshire, and NCAR postdoctoral fellow Olga Wilhelmi. (Photo by Carlye Calvin).

Most scientists would rather be doing research than buttonholing people in Congress or federal agencies to persuade them to provide adequate funding. Yet if the nation's policy makers are going to support atmospheric and related science in the most effective way, they need to hear from a broad spectrum of the research community.

Recently the American Meteorological Society and UCAR sponsored a crash course in policy matters. Their first Summer Policy Colloquium, held in early June, brought 37 people to Washington, D.C., for an intensive ten days of lectures, workshops, and discussion. The idea was to start building a set of policy-savvy scientists who understand science funding and legislation and can serve as a front line of influence.

"There has never been a greater need for sound public policy on meteorological and related issues," says William Hooke, senior policy fellow and director of the AMS Atmospheric Policy Program. Too often, says Hooke, key decisions are made without adequate technical knowledge. That's due in part to "the relatively sparse involvement of experts in the policy-making process, especially on Capitol Hill."

The colloquium brought together an unusual blend of 23 midcareer scientists, who paid tuition, and 14 graduate-level students, who won competitive scholarships in order to attend. The attendees came from NOAA, UCAR and NCAR, NSF, the Navy, industry, and 13 universities. Kicking off the colloquium were panel discussions led by key players in two major policy initiatives of the last decade: Resolution 40—the contentious mid-1990s ruling from the World Meteorological Organization on international data exchange—and the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Melissa Hopkins, a public-relations specialist, discussed the role of scientists in the media, as did keynote speaker Robert Crease (State University of New York, Stony Brook). According to Crease, a news medium is "like a prism, systematically distorting what passes through it while giving the illusion of transparency." To preserve the message as it passes through this prism, Hopkins emphasized the need for scientists to build relationships with specific reporters. Researchers also need to recognize the nature of media deadlines and the need for brevity. In addressing policy makers as well as reporters, the ability to distill complex research to its essence is a must. "We learned that if you can't one-page it, you likely need to rethink it," says Wendy Abshire (UCAR Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training).

Like policy makers themselves, the scientists in D.C. quickly adjusted to a nonstop work pace of long days with evening meetings. The capstone of the colloquium was the development of outlines for hypothetical national initiatives by three teams of attendees, all in less than 24 hours. The topics included regional water variability and climate change, the vulnerability of national resources to weather hazards, and adaptations to regional weather impacts.

"We're used to writing single proposals in response to a request for proposals. Designing a whole research program is quite different," says Holly Hartmann, a doctoral student in hydrology at the University of Arizona. She observes that all three of the team-built initiatives had a significant water-resource component. "As a hydrologist, I thought that was great."

According to Hooke, the attendees were hand-picked as scientists of great promise and extraordinary leadership potential, and "they lived up to this billing. Virtually all of the speakers emphasized how stimulating they found the give-and-take with participants." He adds, "The meteorological community is making a long-term investment in these colloquia and in [the attendees]. The goal is more effective meteorological services to the greater society, sustained over periods of many years."

Several participants came away with sharply revised impressions of the D.C. policy scene. They gave high marks to the dedication and articulateness of the congressional staffers who took time away from crazed schedules to speak at the colloquium (this was the week when Vermont senator James Jeffords resigned, shifting the Senate's balance of power). "They were so frank and full of candor about what can be embarrassing and contentious issues," says Hartman. "There is a sense of collegiality and respect on the Hill. It's not just a fight all the time—the impression you get living far away from Washington. People [on the Hill] really respect each other, and they respect the process."

Abshire now views the legislative process as a "maddening, amazing, impressive system." She recognizes the value of scientists' input in the process more than ever: "It's imperative that we reach beyond our community and that we do it well."

The 2002 AMS-UCAR Summer Policy Colloquium will be held 2–11 June. Applications will be accepted after 1 January.

On the Web:
AMS Atmospheric Policy Program


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Tue Oct 23 11:26:05 MDT 2001