One of the reasons I came to D.C. after graduation was to step out of the research bubble and get some first-hand exposure to how science and data are used to solve problems and shape policy. I felt this was important to my career because no matter how narrow and focused our science question is, science is never done in a vacuum. How and what we do at the bench or in the field both impacts and is impacted by public perceptions, socio-economic issues, legislation, and the national budget. That’s why I was so excited to be brought on as ASLO’s Science Communication Intern this year! Not only am I working closely with ASLO to support its science outreach projects and services to its members, but I also get to live and work at the heart of U.S. policy-making where all these interests converge (and a 5-minute walk from the red line)!
My arrival to the D.C. area in late April was timely. The first week of June, preceding World Oceans Day, is Capitol Hill Ocean Week (CHOW). There are many events tied to CHOW, but the main one is a conference convened by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. I was relieved of my day-to-day duties at ASLO’s communications office to attend the conference. I had been to many science conferences during my graduate school years. So I thought I knew what I was getting myself into.
From the very first breakout session it was clear to me that CHOW was a different kind of conference. For starters, I had not gotten the memo about a business dress code (and why did I forget my business cards again!). Typically, science conferences are casual affairs, but this time my go-to conference style of comfortable sneakers and jeans you can sprint from one room to the next in made me stick out like a sore thumb. No matter. I will fix this for day 2. But what struck me most was that the sessions were not just a lineup of who’s who in that particular area of research... Introduction, methods, results, discussion, ad infinitum. Instead, scientists were just one voice in the conversation. The sessions included various stakeholders - politicians, government officials, representatives of NGOs, and, of course, research scientists. What resulted were robust discussions of ocean science policy topics, what the current state of knowledge is on said topics, and what barriers exist to implementing the science into the policy. It was fascinating.
For example, a break-out session on sustainable shipping practices in port cities included the Representative for California’s 24th district Salud Carbajal, the senior Vice President for Advocacy at the American Lung Association Paul Billings, the Environmental Manager at Port Hueneme in the Santa Barbara Channel Giles Pettifor, District Director for Air Pollution Control in Santa Barbara, California Aeron Arlin Genet, and senior advisor at Business for Social Responsibility Eric Olson. The science is clear; nearly 90% of the world’s goods are shipped via marine vessels, which comes at significant environmental detriment. In Santa Barbara, maritime shipping alone accounts for half of all nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions. NOx react in the atmosphere to form ozone. Ozone and NOx are noxious gases that have a slew of human health and environmental impacts. In addition, ship strikes are an increasingly major source of anthropogenic-caused mortality of whales in the Santa Barbara Channel. The flip side to this story, however, is that maritime shipping is economically vital. These activities provide about 15,000 good paying jobs to the area. Also, remember, a large portion of what you buy at one point in its journey took a ship! Because emissions from ocean-going vessels are poorly regulated both nationally and internationally, and because retrofitting or replacing vessels and equipment with greener technology is extremely costly, regulations are easier said than done. The barrier to implementing sensible solutions here is not lack of data or scientific communication to the policy-makers, rather it is the political will and capital investments required to enact regulatory measures. Instead, officials in Santa Barbara have found success in partnerships with the private sector and voluntary ship speed reduction programs to curtail emissions and prevent whale strikes. Rep. Carbajal discussed H.R. 3682, the Blue Whales Blue Skies Act, which seeks to formalize the voluntary program and build on its success by offering federal recognition and incentives to shipping companies that comply.
This year, CHOW also featured a practical science policy and communication session sponsored by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership (COL) and COMPASS. During the session, COMPASS provided sci comm strategies that can be used for a variety of audiences and introduced us to their “Message Box” workbook (its free online and you can access it here). COL and COMPASS also organized a panel of Capitol Hill staff with a variety of backgrounds to discuss strategies for approaching policy-makers and to give their perspectives on the role of scientists in the policy arena. One of the major takeaways from the panel for me was something that has consistently come up during my time in D.C. And that is that there isn’t necessarily always a lack of science or data on the Hill. Instead, there is oftentimes a lack of finding a common ground of shared values across the political spectrum. There is a very human tendency to pick facts the reaffirm our beliefs which have been shaped by a variety of factors. When we frame issues in ways that reflect the core values of our intended audience, we are much more likely to make progress. But when you can, please, the staffers asked, publish your work open access (or blog, tweet, organize press releases, or reach out!) Did you know that staffers working on science issues don’t have access to journal subscriptions!?
The CHOW conference wrapped up with Hill Visit Day during which participants get to hone their communication skills and take meetings with congressional offices. This year, the post-conference chatter was abuzz with the news that coinciding with the conference, the House of Representatives passed four separate bills to address the need to more intensively study ocean acidification (or, my favorite description of it, “the other CO2 problem”). In all, the CHOW conference was a great tutorial on how science fits in to the larger picture of policy-making. If you want to learn more about policy in the aquatic sciences, ASLO has a wonderful curated L&O Bulletin virtual issue on science policy (Science Meets Policy: How-To’s and Success Stories) with policy resources, case studies, and news. And if you find yourself in the D.C. area next June, do consider attending CHOW 2020! And don’t forget your business cards!
If you want to learn more about the voluntary ship speed reduction program in Santa Barbara Channel, click here!