are trained to deal with uncertainties, to work through problems
where even massive amounts of data still refuse to point to a simple
For AAPG member David Curtiss, that ability to pull
together vague concepts is proving valuable in a location away from
the usual geology job sites — Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Curtiss is the American Geological Institute's 2001-2002
Congressional Science Fellow, working in the office of Rep. J.C.
"My role is not to push an agenda, but to be a scientist
in the office," Curtiss said.
And while Watts hails from an energy state, he also
holds the No. 4 Republican leadership position in the House, meaning
Curtiss is often asked for input in areas varying from cyber security
to Third World indebtedness to home community renewal.
"You need to be a generalist," Curtiss said. "The
scientific approach to problems is valuable."
With a master's degree in earth resources management,
Curtiss was interested in how science, business and politics intersect
in decision making. He applied for and was accepted for the fellowship,
and interviewed for a spot in Watts' office.
For Watts, the "hook" was Curtiss' experience at
the Energy and Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah, where
a heavy emphasis is placed on applied research and international
oil and gas issues.
"It's not an ivory tower," he said.
The experience on Capitol Hill has been eye-opening
in many ways, and the political landscape has changed considerably
since Curtiss' orientation, which coincided with the Sept. 11 terrorist
"Every issue now has a homeland security component,"
The House already had passed an energy bill when
Curtiss arrived on Capitol Hill. But, he said, the measure should
be moving to conferees to iron out differences between the House
and Senate versions in the coming weeks.
The debate promises to be interesting, he said.
The question of opening Alaska's ANWR to drilling
promises to remain contentious, he said.
Another critical issue is energy security — how
to encourage diversification of the nation's oil supply, Curtiss
Arriving at a final version that is "workable and
beneficial," he said," … is not going to be simple. 'Compromise'
is not a dirty word."
Curtiss said he tries to make sure that science "is
not used as a weapon" in different contexts.
"Good" science vs. "junk" science often depends on
whose side you're on, he said.
"The objectivity that we as scientists proclaim really
doesn't fit into the political calculations," he said.
Science is "rarely the primary determination," he
said. Impact on constituents and a variety of other issues must
be worked into decisions.
Watching from the outside, "Scientists have a hard
time understanding how this (certain decisions) could happen," he
The cynical view of politics as "messy and mean-spirited"
usually is not warranted, Curtiss said.
He said it is enlightening to watch House members
"scrapping on one issue, and the next time you see them, they're
Curtiss is one of six earth scientists on Capitol
Hill, he said. Science fellowships in all total 39, he said.
After completing his fellowship, the 31-year-old
Curtiss said he hopes to pursue opportunities in the private sector.
"I see this as a broadening experience — learning
how government operates," he said.
"I'm also helping support earth sciences."
The AGI fellowship ends in August, but Curtiss said
he may apply for a four-month extension.
"One year on the Hill hardly seems enough."