When it comes to politics, there seems to be some confusion among Members regarding the differences between politics, policy, advocacy and legislation.
“Legislation” is the act of setting the rules (laws) that govern business and personal behavior. “Advocacy” is the action of promoting a particular interest or result in legislation. “Policy” is the underlying facts, theories, opinions and philosophical considerations that go into legislation. “Politics” is the art of structuring and organizing personal and institutional actions to accomplish these objectives and to arrive at a consensus.
The distinctions are important to delineate because our Members have often expressed the opinion that as scientists, AAPG has no place in policy or politics, frequently conflating the two. Politics includes advocating a position in any situation, and we as AAPG do not – and should not – advocate political positions that might benefit one Member’s interests over another’s. The proper channel for that is in our personal realm of influence, by contacting our representatives (in the case of U.S. Members, at least) at the local, county, state and national levels. There are advocacy groups, trade associations and other affiliations designed specifically for that purpose, which our Members can join if they choose.
Applying Science to Policy
I would argue, however, that as scientists, we not only have an interest, but an obligation to ensure sound, rational science is applied in the course of public policy. Members of Congress are under a constant barrage of lobbying efforts from various advocacy groups – some masquerading as policy groups – in order to influence the direction of legislation. Senators and representatives and their staff usually do not have a background in science nor do they have a great deal of time to spend trying to wade through the morass of websites, publications and materials with which they are bombarded by advocacy groups in order to determine what is scientifically logical and sound.
They might, however, and have in many cases, sought information from scientific groups like AAPG on many topics. Our presence in Washington, D.C. over the last 10 years has established many relationships to which AAPG has been a source of scientific background. They have participated in briefings and committee hearings to provide factual information to policymakers and have arranged “lunch-and-learn” talks for staffers with subject matter experts (SMEs) from AAPG. Frequently, when science information is sought, the timeline in policymaking is minutes or hours – days are considered a lifetime in D.C.
At the Geo Congressional Visit Days hosted by the American Geosciences Institute last September, a staffer from outgoing Rep. Mike Honda’s (D-Calif.) office spoke to the group. He said they welcome input from geoscientists and admitted that, since they heard so infrequently from geoscientists, there was no geoscience “checkbox” on their call-in list, and frequently those calls were allocated to “other,” along with random calls and “crazies.”
The essence of the conversation was that you have to participate in the conversation if you want your knowledge included in the process.
Frequently Asked Questions
• AAPG has Statements on topics that are of particular interest to our Members (formerly called “Position Statements,” but it was felt by some that the word “position” was too strong). However, these Statements are essentially equivalent to a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) and outline positions regarding geoscience.
• These Statements are available on AAPG’s website and serve to explain to the public our position or view on those subjects to which we can speak, as scientists, in terms that target the public. They are fairly general in nature due to the spectrum of opinion and interest among the AAPG Membership, but serve as an important vehicle in communicating with elected officials and the public at large regarding topics of interest to our Members. These are aligned with our second and fourth bullets of our Mission Statement as: “to promote the technology of exploring for, finding, and producing these materials in an economically and environmentally sound manner” and “to disseminate information relating to the geology and the associated technology of petroleum, natural gas, other subsurface fluids, and mineral resources.”
Maintaining a Presence
As many of you already know, I have always been an advocate of AAPG’s “GeoDC” Geoscience and Energy Policy Office. However, due to the continued oil price slump and resulting industry downturn, we have had to eliminate the staff support in Washington for this activity. AAPG will remain engaged in Washington, but the duties will be manned by volunteers while we evaluate our next steps.
All of the examples in this column are about the office in Washington, D.C. but the principles apply in any local or international venue where citizens are able to have a voice. Silence is not a virtue when it comes to carrying the scientific message. And the fact remains: if you want to be part of the conversation, you have to be present – and engaged.
(Editor’s note: See Policy Watch for more details about how to engage your representatives in your local, state and national legislatures.)