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Michael Smith

Michael Smith
Science & Technology Policy Fellowships

2006-07 Energy, Environment & Natural Resources (EENR) Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Although it may sound a bit cliché, there was a point while I was sitting atop a camel in the remote, desolate dunes of the Wahibi Sands in the central part of Oman – a small country on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula – when I did indeed ask myself, “How in the world did I get here?” Just a few months earlier, I had been preparing lectures, grading papers and reading theses in my position as an Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Humboldt State University in far northern California. Set in the foggy coastal rainforests of the Pacific Northwest’s rain belt, it is hard to imagine an environment that could be more completely opposite from the extreme aridity and heat of the Omanian desert. So, just how did I end up atop the camel? As you may imagine, there’s a bit of story, so let me start at the beginning.

As my first opportunity for a sabbatical approached after receiving tenure, I knew that I wanted to find something that would offer a substantial opportunity to develop my policy knowledge and skills. Although I’ve taught courses and conducted research in environmental policy for nearly ten years, I had gone pretty much straight through school and had very little “real-world” policy experience. Fortunately, I saw an advertisement for the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, and immediately knew that it was exactly what I was looking for. After squeezing in time to complete the application while buried in the grading of fall semester final exams, I was excited to hear that I was selected for an interview. I was subsequently offered a placement in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water.

My placement has provided me with unparalleled opportunities to experience the federal environmental policy-making process. My office directs programs under the federal Clean Water Act that regulate discharges of pollutants into the surface waters of the United States. It’s an incredibly complex and often highly controversial process that regulates everything from aquaculture to coal mining to pharmaceutical manufacturing. Some the diverse projects I’ve worked on during the year include a study of the cumulative impacts of surface water discharges from coalbed methane development in the Rocky Mountain West, and a study of how land trusts can assist in the EPA’s efforts to promote water quality trading programs. I also was given the opportunity to join an interagency workgroup for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

So what does this work have to do with camels and Oman, you may be wondering? As it turns out, nothing. But one of the most exciting opportunities my fellowship has provided has been the ability to learn about and work with other offices within EPA that have interested me, which is where Oman comes in. For the past several years, I’ve conducted training workshops for federal agency employees throughout the U.S. on the Environmental Impact Assessment process. Not long after I arrived at EPA, I discovered that there was an office that did similar training throughout the world. After meeting with staff from the International Capacity Building Program in EPA’s Office of Federal Activities and expressing my interest in learning about how such training is conducted overseas, I soon was asked to join a team delivering a week-long course in reviewing Environmental Impact Assessment documents in the Omanian capital of Muscat.

The U.S. had just passed a trade agreement with Oman which required the country to adopt environmental review procedures, and the U.S. Department of State and the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE) were co-sponsoring the training as part of a program to assist the government in complying with the new requirements. We spent the week with representatives from the governments of Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, helping them learn about ways to understand how development projects might impact the environment and how to effectively involve the public in the decision-making process. It was among the most challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had, and even though I was an “instructor,” I probably learned as much, if not more, than they did.

After the workshop was over, one of the participants invited me to visit his rural village in the interior of Oman, and through a friend of a friend of his (I’ve traveled to several regions of the world, and it’s safe to say Omanians are the most friendly, gracious, and welcoming of any people I’ve ever encountered) I was invited to join a trip to the remote parts of the interior. Along the way, we stopped at a souq, or traditional village market, in the town of Nizwa. There, I ran into a member of the interview panel from my selection committee for the AAAS Fellowship who was in Oman to attend a global environmental health conference. It’s a small world indeed! Eventually, we made our way deep into the dunes and into the camp of a group of nomadic camel traders. And I made my way on to the back of the camel for an enchanting sunset ride through the dunes before the long return flight home to Washington through Dubai and Zurich.

Although it would be hard to top the camel experience (they are pretty tall, after all…), I’ve had countless other opportunities to experience all of the unique policy-making and intellectual opportunities that Washington has to offer. I’ve been to numerous Congressional hearings on a variety of environmental issues (including Al Gore’s testimony on global warming to an overflowing hearing room that all had the atmosphere of a rock concert rather than a staid policy hearing), Supreme Court arguments, and I even got to spend five minutes having a one-on-one conversation with former Vice-President Water Mondale about America’s foreign policy future when I wandered across the street from my office after work one day to a seminar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

All in all, I’ve had one of the most rewarding, enriching, stimulating, and engaging years of my life through the Fellowship. For anyone seeking to both apply their own scientific knowledge and expertise to the federal policy-making process, as well as challenge and push yourself to learn about new areas of science and policy outside of your comfort zone, I can’t imagine a better way than through the AAAS Fellowships. In fact, my experience has been so positive I really don’t want to return to that university position quite yet – so I’m taking a leave of absence and staying in Washington to take a management position with an environmental consulting and policy firm. I found about the job from a former AAAS Fellow who works at the company, illustrating another key benefit of the Fellowship experience – the incredible network of more than 2,000 former Fellows at your disposal who have gone on into science and policy positions throughout the government, academia, NGOs, the private sector, and think tanks.