1998-99 Legislative Branch Fellow sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers
As an environmental engineer, I’ve spent my career in a field that is highly driven by government policy, so when an opportunity arose to spend a year working for a member of Congress, it was too good to pass up. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) joined the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program just a few years ago, so I am only their third congressional fellow. Recognizing that many of the decisions made in Washington impact the civil engineering profession, ASCE decided to get more involved in public policy by sending a “mid-career” professional to work on Capitol Hill for a year.
As a “mid-career” professional who has spent many years as a consulting engineer, my perspective is a little different than that of a newly-minted Ph.D. or a faculty member on sabbatical. My area of expertise and interest is environmental policy, especially water and wastewater treatment and hazardous waste management, rather than broader science policy or research funding issues. As a consultant, I have designed water and wastewater treatment systems and investigated sites contaminated with hazardous chemicals. Virtually all of my work has been to help my clients comply with environmental protection laws.
I was able to spend my fellowship year working for a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the committee that is responsible for authorization and oversight of the nation’s environmental protection laws. Viewing environmental policy from the other side, the side of the policy makers rather than those responsible for implementing or complying with the policy, gives one an entirely different perspective. While as an engineer I might see a certain approach as the most efficient or the easiest to implement in the field, those are only some of the considerations which go into making political decisions. The interests of a wide range of stakeholders must be considered in order to get enough votes to actually pass legislation. This is a difficult and frustrating process, with the result being that no one gets everything they want, but a compromise is sometimes reached that most people can live with.
One of the first lessons I learned was the importance of constituent input in the decision making process. Lobbyists and interest groups are good at getting their side of the story heard, but a well-written letter or an articulate visit from someone in the state or district describing how an issue affects them can be very effective. A clear and succinct explanation of the impact of a decision on real life is especially powerful in light of the paucity of scientific and technical background on the part of most congressional staffers. Scientists and engineers have an opportunity and indeed a responsibility to weigh in on a variety of issues, from environmental policy to education, health, defense, and international relations.
While my year on Capitol Hill has been fascinating, I will be returning to the private sector soon. But I will apply the insight that I have gained into the political process and the increased understanding of the factors that influence decisions to helping my clients achieve their goals. I will take with me a tremendous network of contacts, both in and out of government, developed through the fellowship program.