A student take on congressonal visits

By Kasey White posted 05-11-2016 10:43


Interested in participating in congressional visits but not sure what to expect? Read about the experience of Brent Silvis, who was the student representative from GSA’s North-Central Section in 2015. 


Congressional Visit Day 2015

 It was an honor to be invited to this year’s Geosciences Congressional Visit Day (GEO CVD) as a representative of the North-Central Section of the Geological Society of America.  This was a rewarding and interesting experience.  During my time in Washington DC I learned about some of the threats to scientific research and education funding due to proposed budget cuts, I reacquainted myself with some of the workings of our federal legislature and met with U.S. senators and representatives or their assistants and pled the case for continued support of science funding.

Prior to this trip to DC, I participated in a webinar that provided the attendees with some tips on how to prepare for the trip.  Upon arriving in DC, attendees of the CVD convened for an orientation and training workshop.  There we were given an overview of the workings of Congress and federal geoscience funding and our agenda and objectives were explained to us.  Of primary concern during this CVD were proposed cuts in the America COMPETES Act, which authorizes a major source of funding for STEM education and geoscience research administered by the National Science Foundation.  After this workshop we were invited to attend a USGS Coalition reception at which several members of Congress were acknowledged for their support of the geosciences.

At the workshop I met my confederates: Ryan Haupt, a paleontologist from the University of Wyoming, and Brittany Webster, a DC lobbyist with the American Geophysical Union.  With my own background in Environmental Science and Earth Systems Science and Policy we were to visit the offices of our representatives and senators.  There were three primary objectives of each visit.  First, we wanted to use anecdotes from our personal experiences, education, and research to illustrate the important role science research and education plays in our society and economy.  Next, we were to implore the members of Congress to advocate for continued funding of the National Science Foundation and to support science research and education when addressing their houses and colleagues.  Finally, we were to offer our assistance and advisement on issues related to our research and academic fields. 

The following morning we met on Capitol Hill for our congressional visits.  I am a resident of Minnesota where I teach in the STEM department of a tribal college and I attend graduate school in North Dakota.  My research area-of-interest overlays parts of Minnesota and North Dakota.  Therefore we had scheduled meetings with the offices of Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Senators Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven of North Dakota and Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota.  Of these only Senator Hoeven met with us personally (and briefly); the other meetings were attended to by congressional staffers.  We also met with two of Ryan’s congressional delegates, Representative Cynthia Lummis and Senator Mike Enzi. 

Each meeting was quite unique.  We had researched each delegate’s committee assignments and tried to customize our message to complement their priorities.  It was interesting to see how members and staffers reacted to different details of our backgrounds.  Legislative Assistants to Senators Klobuchar and Hoeven and Representative Peterson, all who serve on agricultural committees, showed a lot of interest in my research related to the relationships between agriculture and water quality.  Generally, all the offices were interested to hear about my experiences at the tribal college and they acknowledged that tribal communities face unique challenges.  In most cases, my experiences were not greeted with as much interest as Ryan’s discussion of his research on prehistoric sloths.  It seems that paleontology is of universal interest and those that seemed to have little appreciation for science were still intrigued with Ryan’s work. 

After our visit we each followed up with emails to each office where we restated our concerns, answered any questions that we were not able to address in the meeting and offered to assist the representatives and senators with any issues related to our fields.

My impression of the effectiveness of this outing varied from meeting to meeting.  I feel that some of the offices were not interested in our concerns.  They already had deeply held positions on these issues and our visit was not likely to spur any reconsideration of those positions.  I appreciate the time they spent with us and I believe we need to continue to interact with them, so that they remain aware of the priorities of some of their constituents and they retain channels of communication with the science community as related policy issues arise. 

At other meetings it was obvious that we were addressing members that already shared our position.  Although it felt like we were “preaching to the choir”, it is important that these people know that their positions align with those of their constituents and that their work is appreciated so that they can remain motivated to fight for budgets for science research and education and policies that incorporate the extremely valuable products of this research.

Personally, this was a great experience.  At this point in my research it was enlightening to step away from my work and see the functioning of other parts of society which are every bit as crucial to science.  I hope that I can participate in this program next year, primarily because I feel that I could be a much more effective representative.  There were several ways I felt we could have better prepared and delivered our message and these were shared with the sponsoring organizations.  I am confident that, with additional preparation and the experience garnered from this year’s CVD, we can prepare a very powerful message advocating for the continued support of science education and research and the incorporation of scientific findings into the public policy process. 

The Geological Society of America is a great organization which has provided me with valuable experiences, opportunities and resources.  I would like to thank the North-Central Section for sponsoring this program, both for the experience it has provided me and the contribution it makes to science.  I hope, by my participation, that I was able to help the GSA meet its goals. 

--Brent Silvis