Selling Science to Policy-Makers


Since I understand the challenges students may encounter while choosing careers, I hope that in some small way, my career path will help guide and mentor readers of Science's Next Wave.

I received a B.S. from the College of William and Mary in environmental sciences in 1980 and immediately went to work for a consulting firm near Washington, D.C. I was hired on a 2-year U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contract investigating the handling and storage of PCBs by industries across the U.S. A major requirement was to write clear, succinct, and timely reports on each industrial site's adherence (or lack thereof) to federal regulations, so I quickly learned the challenges of effective writing!

In 1982 I returned to school, and in 1984 I received a master's degree in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I chose environmental engineering as opposed to environmental science because I wanted a math-and-modeling focus on the hydrologic sciences ... and because, quite frankly, more full graduate scholarships were available for women engineers than for women scientists.

Since 1984 I have worked for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as a hydrologist. During the first decade, I developed regional ground-water models that were used by state water-resource officials to manage ground-water pumping in southeastern Virginia. As water-contamination issues grew in intensity across the country, the USGS trained me in water-quality concepts, which I then applied to regional assessments of nutrients in ground water on the Delmarva Peninsula. Local and state officials used this information in managing land and farming practices in the intensive agricultural communities on the peninsula. In addition, I served on a multidisciplinary team assessing nutrients in ground water across the country--findings that EPA and other federal agencies used to prioritize regions most vulnerable to ground-water contamination.

In each of these long-term assignments with USGS, I realized the importance and relevance of scientific findings to water-resource managers--and, more importantly, the critical need to convey the findings so these managers, who may not be trained in hydrologic sciences, can readily apply them to their work and decisions.

From 1994 through 1996, I entered the world of management, serving as the district chief of USGS water programs in Virginia. This position helped me develop extensive contacts in the water-resources field and develop scientific programs that addressed current water-resource needs and issues. Communication was key in this position, too, not only to successfully "sell" the scientific programs to stakeholders, but also to efficiently provide written and oral products to help them apply the results to their water-resource needs.

In 1996 I left management, mostly to better balance work with family, and have since worked as a water information coordinator for USGS's National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program. NAWQA assesses water-quality conditions and trends in more than 50 of the nation's most important streams and aquifers. My current emphasis is to communicate key implications of NAWQA's scientific findings (as currently reported in more than a thousand technical reports and journal articles) to government, research, policy, and interest-group partners, in order to help guide water-resource management and protection strategies and policy. I primarily write nontechnical documents, articles, and briefing papers that commonly are used at congressional briefings and meetings and in interest-group publications. In addition, I give presentations at annual and topical meetings of environmental organizations, government agencies, watershed consortiums, and other interest groups.

Skills required in my job include command of the English language and scientific method; perseverance in improving expression through words; ability to listen; understanding of water-resource issues; and ability to network with both scientists and nonscientists. One of the biggest challenges I face is to maintain scientific credibility--the foundation on which USGS stands--while reducing scientific findings to simple, succinct, and straightforward terms that nonscientists can understand and apply.

The transition to my communication role was natural and easy, seemingly the culmination of my previous experiences as a scientist and federal manager in the water-resource field. My experiences as a scientist have helped me relate to, and communicate with, other scientists (for example, asking the right questions and extracting the key information), as well as correctly interpret scientific findings in the appropriate context with full understanding of the caveats and the associated confidence/error levels. In addition, my management and project experiences in applying science to specific water-resource questions have helped me better connect and communicate with water-resource managers and policy-makers.

Twenty years ago I would not have predicted my career path. At every step, and especially now in my current position, I am challenged by new ideas, learning about diverse and emerging issues, meeting new people, and contributing to solutions to water-resource problems. I've learned that when starting and moving through a career, it is critical to remain flexible and open to all opportunities and challenges, to stay curious and confident, to explore new ideas and areas, and to continually create and nurture networks with colleagues and mentors in related fields.

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