General News

Switzer Fellows bring expertise to DC

In early March, working with our training partners at COMPASS, we convened Fellows in Washington, DC, for two days of workshop and practice on communicating with policy makers!  Most of the 2017 Fellows and one Fellow alum joined us for the policy training and general festivities, and once again we’re thrilled to report many positive outcomes from this trip.  Despite what we hear on the news and the sound bytes we get from our elected officials, we continue to find accessible and productive people behind the scenes in our nation’s capitol.  There are staffers eager for information, agency personnel trying to continue their good work, and NGOs adapting to the needs of the day.  Of course, what we hear on the news and from Fellows and colleagues in the federal policy trenches is all part of the current reality, too.  But our experience provided a few glimmers of hope and humanity.

Prior to arriving in DC, Fellows were asked what kind of change they hoped to make by offering their expertise.  A few of the responses include:

  • “I hope to change some individuals’ opinions on solar energy – why it’s important, and what the real costs and challenges are.”
  • “I am working to bring the values to which Black Lives Matter has given voice to policy makers, and to connect these values with environmental issues.  We need policy that addresses social and economic disparity and that curbs corporate power in order to make positive environmental progress.”
  • “I hope to start a conversation regarding the importance of green infrastructure in climate adaptation planning.  I also hope to gain a deeper understanding of the processes related to policy implementation.”
  • “I hope to use my healthcare background to help convince moderate Republicans to address climate change.”
  • “There is tremendous opportunity to utilize public investments in clean energy to spur equitable economic development.”
  • "[I hope to gain] “better understanding of [policy makers’] wants/needs and how I can meet them.”

Fellows had 35 meetings with 26 different offices, including with U.S. Congressional legislative staff (from the offices of Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Dianne Feinstein, Kristen Gillibrand, Sheldon Whitehouse, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and many more), federal agency staff (including the National Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, EPA), the U.S. Agency for International Development, and policy-oriented NGOs like Earthjustice.

The breadth of issues on which Fellows connected with policymakers was terrific, and included such topics as long-term ocean monitoring, the national strategy to promote pollinator health, U.S.-Chinese collaborative efforts on environmental issues, FEMA disaster assistance, chemicals regulation, federal climate policies, and corporate environmental disclosure laws, to name but a few. 

We asked Fellows to share the most valuable takeaway from arranging and attending their meetings with policymakers.  We hope their responses will be encouraging to any of you who might be in a position to bring expertise to ongoing or anticipated policy actions.

  • “Members of government are accessible and open to learning more about the relevance on the science.”
  • “That as scientists we have a responsibility to speak up and reach out, but the opportunities are not always there.  Waiting for the right time to speak up may be critical for creating the greatest impact.”
  • "Engaging with policymakers was much easier than I expected.  The policy world need not be so far away.”
  • “The training pushed me to contextualize my place-based research in the broader space of climate mitigation and adaptation policy in a way that was meaningful to varied audiences.  Additionally, catching a glimpse into the inner workings of the federal policy landscape allowed me to better understand the authority and limitations of each scale of government.”
  • “People who share enthusiasm about my work will be happy to talk, even if they are in high-powered positions.  This was encouraging and a confidence boost.”
  • “Policy makers want to engage with constituents and are open to discussing issues with them.”
  • “Relationships matter and can be carefully cultivated within government.”

Yes, relationships matter.  We think this really captures the essence of how to contribute what you know to the people who need the information.  Fellows who arranged and attended these impressive meetings took a risk, stepped out of their comfort zones, and not only provided information to people in the policy space, but came out with a deeper understanding of the issue and its policy context, and maybe even a small comfort level engaging in this critical way.  Bravo to them!