PULLMAN, Wash. – With Congress’ ratings at an all time low, many people might not jump at the chance to go to Washington, D.C., during a hot, humid summer to work with congressmen and learn about policy.
But for Rodrigo Gonzalez, a Washington State University graduate student in the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research (LAR), working in the nation’s capitol helped connect science with the decision-making process.
“It’s not in my character to be in a lab doing research and publishing articles that are only useful for other scientists,” he said. “I want to see the broader impacts. I like to see that what I do has an impact on the development of society.”
Private gift helps fund program
As part of LAR’s Atmospheric Policy Trajectory (APT) program, students participate in an enhanced graduate program with specific training in environmental public policy.
Made possible through a grant from the WSU Graduate School and an anonymous private donor, the program trains students in government, policy and communication. In addition to their studies in atmospheric sciences, students participate in workshops, internships with policy groups and courses in public policy.
“On the one hand, this type of experience helps our students learn how to best communicate science,” said Brian Lamb, Regents professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “At the same time, it helps policy makers who may not fully appreciate the complexities of atmospheric processesbut who have to devise policy strategies that are affected by and impact those processes.”
Gonzalez has been long interested in politics. He studied environmental engineering in Mexico City as an undergraduate and participated in modeling studies of air pollution in that city.
Communicating science to make effective policy
During his summer in D.C., Gonzalez worked for the American Meteorological Society’s policy program, which helps congressional staffers develop science-based policy. It also connects scientists and policy makers. The idea is to help each other and give each other information, Gonzalez said.
There often has been a gap between scientists and policy makers, he said: “It’s very hard to communicate science to make effective policy.” The AMS policy program tries to cover that gap.
In 2009, the program made policy recommendations based on the professional and scientific expertise and perspectives of the AMS about a climate change legislative proposal. The legislation passed in the House of Representatives but never made it through the Senate to become law.
Politics plays a part
Part of Gonzalez’s work was interviewing the different actors on this legislation as well as experts and advocates surrounding the proposal. What were the electoral implications of the proposal? Why did it pass the House and not the Senate? Who and what gives momentum to the legislation?
“It is not necessarily the science or engineering that gives legislation its momentum,” he said.
If the climate is changing and the weather and ecosystems are being affected as a result of pollution from human activities, it would seem obvious that there is a need to create legislation directed to reduce that pollution.
But it’s not necessarily a straight line, he said: “It’s not just science and engineering. It is politics, too.”
Understanding eases frustration
Trying to get science into the public policy discussion can be frustrating, Gonzalez said. But it was more frustrating before he became involved.
“Now I understand how it works and what is involved,” he said. “It’s natural and necessary for humans to disagree. The source of policy making is disagreement. As frustrating as that can be, there is no better way.”
Gonzalez is working to complete a Ph.D. in air quality modeling. Since returning from his summer internship, he is pursuing his final year in the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in engineering sciences.
Studying U.S., Mexico air pollution
His research aims to better understand the influence of global changes on U.S. air pollution. Global changes such as climate change, urbanization, deforestation and air pollution transport from Asia will affect the levels of U.S. pollution, he said.
He would like to travel and eventually return to Mexico to help his country with its air pollution problems. Spending the summer in D.C. may have been hot and humid, but Gonzalez said the work helped him learn how to better communicate the science that he studies.
“It’s a different world away from the lab,” he said. “This has really made me a better professional.”