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The President's Environment

The President's Environment is published 3x/year. Past Issues of the President's Environment can be found in the archives of The Bulletin.

Changing the World

By President Dave Strayer

January 2015

Fuller and Penrose

Abstract. Strayer describes how SFS is trying to get good science to policy makers, and why it’s important for us to do this.

It’s hard to be a freshwater scientist today and not wish that society was better managing its freshwater resources. Whether it’s the construction of a local mall, state and national policies on invasive species or climate change, or the construction and operation of hydroelectric dams in China, we often see decisions driven by short-term, narrow, economic interests rather than the best available science, with harmful consequences for both freshwater ecosystems and society at large.

On my few visits to Albany (my state capital) or Washington, I have heard over and over again that one of the reasons this occurs is that the economic interests (whether the energy lobby, the farm lobby, or the local chamber of commerce) engage frequently and skillfully with policy makers, while scientists do not. Along with many SFS members, I’ve become convinced that scientists need to connect more often and more effectively with policy makers. Today’s column will describe what SFS is doing to engage with the policy world, and how you might engage with that world yourself.

(And let’s not undersell ourselves; here in the US, there are more working scientists than farmers or National Rifle Association members, and those groups seem to be able to get their messages to Congress just fine.)

As reflected in our strategic plan, SFS has a long-standing interest in seeing good science used for the public good, and we do several things to pursue that interest. We have a Science and Policy Committee (SPC) to develop and strengthen links between SFS and policy makers. Most recently, the SPC submitted a detailed comment on the EPA’s proposed new science-based definition of the “Waters of the United States,” which is one of the most critical issues affecting fresh waters in the US. You can read more about the SPC and its activities here.

We also often hold policy-related sessions at our annual meetings (many of you will remember the session on mountaintop mining at the Pittsburgh meeting, for example). These sessions have been very popular, and the Board is exploring ways to encourage more such sessions at future meetings.

SFS has limited resources, and shares policy-related interests with other scientific societies, so we ally ourselves with other scientific societies to pursue policy-related activities. We were a founding member of CASS (Consortium of Aquatic Scientific Societies), which has held 2 congressional briefings, and submitted its own comment on “Waters of the United States”. SFS presidents participate in CSSP (Council of Scientific Society Presidents), which works on policy issues that affect all US scientists, such as federal science funding, open-access requirements, and the current onerous restrictions on travel by federal employees. SFS is also re-invigorating our links with AIBS, which tracks policy issues, organizes congressional visits, and so on. As a start, anyone who is interested in getting AIBS’s very good public policy reports every 2 weeks can sign up at www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports. These alliances let SFS extend its policy reach at modest cost.

(Yes, I know that our current efforts are very centered on the US, and I welcome your thoughts on how we might work elsewhere.)

So, if you’re interested in getting involved in the policy world, you can join SFS in one of these activities. (And RIGHT NOW would be an excellent time to write to President-Elect Matt Whiles to tell him that you’d be interested in serving on one of the SFS committees, whether about policy or something else, because he’ll be making his committee appointments soon.)

But there are also many things that you can do outside of SFS. Visit your elected representatives to talk about fresh water, or write them to praise them for a good vote or express your disappointment with a bad one. Offer to provide scientific advice to one of the many local, regional, or international NGOs that work on the environment. Serve on a local planning board. Help an agency by serving on an advisory committee or submitting comments on a proposed rule. Write a letter to the editor or a response to a blog post when a public debate needs a good infusion of sound science. Hold a graduate seminar that produces a policy comment or op-ed piece. Most of all, engage, or the future of our fresh waters will be determined by others who do engage.

I used to worry about which activity was the best use of my time, and that I’d be wasting my time if I chose a suboptimal activity. My current favorite quote is Voltaire’s “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” and I can only say that doing ANY of these things has got to be better than sitting on the sidelines, wringing my hands.

If you want to hear more about how you can engage with the policy world, and learn how to get better at it, you’ll want to attend the 1-day workshop in Milwaukee on "Learning to bring your science to bear on policy-making: a practical introduction," which will feature experienced speakers from a broad range of organizations and backgrounds. Attendance is very limited, to allow strong interaction between speakers and participants, so you’ll want to register early for this workshop to make sure you get in.

Dave Strayer

p.s. and speaking of the Milwaukee meeting, have you registered and submitted your abstract yet? This is going to be a great meeting in a fun town, and you won’t want to miss it!

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