Paleontology Comes to Washington: Geoscience Congressional Visits Days, 2018

Paleontology Comes to Washington: Geoscience Congressional Visits Days, 2018

On September 12-13, 2018, two student members of the Paleontological Society, Sarah Widlansky and David Cordie, participated in the 2018 Geoscience Congressional Visits Day (Geo-CVD) in Washington, D.C.  The Paleontological Society approved funds to support travel to the 2018 Geo-CVD for two student members (either undergraduate or graduate students), and Sarah and David were selected by a subcommittee of the Paleontological Society ad hoc Government Affairs Committee from among applications that were submitted in response to a call to membership.  They each generously agreed to write about their experiences at the Geo-CVD, and to share them with members; I encourage you to read them, below. 

We anticipate that funding is likely to be approved for attendance at the 2019 Geo-CVD and encourage all Paleontological Society student members interested in learning more about the legislative process and federal policy related to paleontology and the geological sciences to watch for the next call for applications and apply to participate in this informative and interesting event next year.


By Sarah Widlansky

I’m a PhD student at the University of New Hampshire, and this September I participated in the Geoscience Congressional Visits Days (GeoCVD). GeoCVD is an annual event hosted by the American Geosciences Institute (AGI) to bring geoscientists together on Capitol Hill to meet with congressional offices. Going into this, I really had no experience with science policy and wasn’t sure what to expect. I hoped this could be a way to learn more about how research gets translated into policy and better ways to relate my own research to other people and society. Prior to arriving in DC, all participants received an information packet reviewing the basics of how Congress works, an outline of what to expect, and an overview of the geoscience legislation we’d be discussing. We also had a webinar where we could ask questions and become more familiar with the program.

The actual event happened over two days in Washington, DC. On the first day, we had a workshop to help us prepare for our meetings. We heard from policy specialists from AGI and member organizations who reiterated our overarching message – that we appreciate the congressional support for geoscience research and funding, as well as some pieces of legislation that we wanted to gain support for – our “asks”. We also heard from a panel of congressional staff on what to expect in our meetings and how to be effective. At the end of the day we broke off into small groups to practice what we’d say in our meetings. Each group also included a facilitator who could help us practice and would accompany us to our meetings the following day. My group included one other person from New Hampshire and two people from New York. I was the only student in my group, but overall, students and postdocs made up roughly half of the participants.

We had a full day of meetings on the second day. We met with staff from four New York offices and three from New Hampshire. Each meeting was surprisingly fast, lasting an average of 15 minutes! After exchanging business cards, we briefly introduced ourselves, thanked them for their support, stated our “asks,” backed them up with support from our experiences and research, gave them an opportunity to ask questions, then left them with information on the bills and our contact information in case the office wanted to follow up with us. Every office we visited was receptive and interested to hear what we had to say. It was a very positive experience. As someone coming into this somewhat apprehensively, I thought this program did a great job making sure everyone felt prepared and could walk away feeling like they made a difference. In addition to the scheduled GeoCVD events, David Cordie (the other Paleontological Society student representative) and I were able to meet with program directors at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and tour their new building, which was a great opportunity. Overall, this trip was a good way to meet new people and learn new things.


By David Cordie

When I started my studies in paleoecology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I was well aware that the majority of my time would be spent honing the skills that scientists need to succeed. Fieldwork, sample prep, data analysis, and writing, lots of writing, all seemed like obvious skills to improve during graduate school. However, an awareness of science policy and how it is implemented are also critical skills to acquire.  

Before Geo-CVD, my understanding of science policy was limited to episodes of Veep or The West Wing. I assumed science policy consisted of members of congress ordering their staff to implement policies most beneficial to their political agenda. However, I have come to learn that there is actually much more listening and information gathering in Washington than I would have guessed. My experience started (after getting only slightly confused by the DC metro system) with a series of lectures on the current state of geoscience legislation and a panel with congressional staffers fielding questions about how meetings in Washington typically go. Some elements are to be expected: meetings are typically short (15-20 minutes), everyone is five minutes late, and it is not considered rude to check your cellphone during a meeting (you never know when a crisis could begin). Other elements were more unexpected. For example, I anticipated more debate-style conversations, much like the dramatic arguments staged in political dramas. But the staffers informed us that they prefer to ask questions, rather than debate. The worst thing a member of congress can be is surprised, and the staffers view their role as information gatherers.

The following day started with a meet-and-greet for Senator Tammy Baldwin. It was a great opportunity to meet a senator firsthand and personally explain the importance that maintaining strong funding for the geosciences has had on my career. For the rest of the day our group (I was in the Wisconsin/Minnesota group) met with the staffs of U.S. Senators Baldwin, Johnson, Smith, and Klobuchar, as well as U.S. Representatives Moore, Pocan, and Walz. Within our meetings, we presented a series of “Asks” or items that we request from the congressperson. These typically included funding for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), or National Science Foundation (NSF). But, depending on the specifics of the district, we asked for support on legislation focused on everything from landslide preparedness to space weather forecasting.

Most refreshingly, regardless of political party, I found staffers were genuinely curious and treated us as a source of expertise. After briskly moving from meeting to meeting (congressional office buildings are massive and complex), we ended the day with a stop at the official Baskin Robbins of Congress in the basement of one of the congressional buildings, populated with other tired, suit-wearing lobbyists and staffers. I found the experience of Geo-CVD to be incredibly revealing of the role scientists have in informing policymakers in Washington. As a student I now feel more confident that I can communicate my needs to those who influence the direction of the country.