AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. Part 3.

In 2001, a little less than one year after our initial AMS discussions, we held our first AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, which ran from June 3-12. The format, which hasn’t changed much since that first year, generally goes something like the following:

Participants are selected over the months prior to the Colloquium.  Most are early-to-mid-career, and are funded and sent by their host institutions – universities, corporations or small businesses, government agencies, the occasional NGO. In addition, with help over the years from AMS and UCAR (2001), and from the Paleoclimatology Program of the National Science Foundation (2001-present),each year we have selected 10-14 graduate students of exceptional scientific and leadership potential on the basis of a national competition. We limit participation to a maximum of 40, to encourage discussion. Most years, it’s run a little less than that. Over the eleven years of the program, we’ve put about 400 people through. Participants are on track to become federal executives, corporate leaders, university department chairs and administrators. Despite our best efforts, these bright, energetic, high-minded scientists and engineers are making a name for themselves!

Those selected each year are given pre-assigned reading. Some of this material is generic – basic science and public policy or working with Congress. Some is topical – dealing with climate change, international environmental treaties, assessments, and the like.

Participants assemble in Washington, DC the first Sunday evening following Memorial Day. The start date was motivated by the needs of academic participants. The idea was to be late enough that all university academic years, even those for universities on a quarters-system, had concluded, but early enough in the summer that students and faculty might not be forced to choose between Colloquium participation and work on field experiments, etc.  Serendipitously, it happened that the week following the Memorial Day recess, when members of Congress and their staffs were just returning, tended to work from their standpoint as well.

That first Sunday evening we share a meal, do self-introductions, and walk participants through the agenda for the ten-day program. Often, the Executive Director and current president of the AMS are on hand to welcome the participants and reinforce the importance of this investment from the AMS point of view.

Monday morning participants race through a crash course in science and public policy, covering material they’ve read in advance but that amounts to a semester’s worth of work in a few hours.  Monday afternoon we move from the meeting hotel to Capitol Hill, where we meet Senate staffers on their turf.

Tuesday morning we hear from White House staffers. We try to always cover OMB and OSTP, and CEQ when we can. Tuesday afternoons we go to the House side of Capitol Hill for meetings with staff.

The sessions Wednesday morning and Thursday are devoted to special topics. More on those in a moment!

Wednesday afternoon and Friday afternoon are reserved for a group exercise. We’ve done variants of this but most years the group exercise involves a breakout into several small groups and preparing presentations (pro-, con-, or special-interest) with respect to Congressional legislation.

Wednesday evenings we have another group dinner with a high-profile speaker. This year it will be former Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC).

Friday mornings we generally hear from scientists-turned-high-level policy officials, in a session entitled executive perspectives on leadership. We usually ask these executives (and many other presenters), some variant of the following three questions: (1) starting with childhood, what was the series of strategic decisions and happy accidents that got you your job? (2) what keeps you up at night? What are your roles/responsibilities day-to-day and over a calendar year? What big things are you trying to accomplish? What problems do you see that we face as a country with respect to science and public policy? (3) what is your advice to young people who want your job or something like it some day? Presenters are usually given a generous hour divided equally between informal but prepared remarks and discussion. All conversations are off the record.

Saturday morning, participants meet my wife and me for a group breakfast at our home. We then tour George Washington’s home Mount Vernon, just a few miles distant.

Why single out Washington? He is an interesting exemplar to contemplate. He was widely considered to be the foremost farmer in the United States at a time when farmers were among the foremost naturalists. In addition, because he was the nation’s first president, he didn’t follow policy formulated by others; he established precedent. He made it up as he went along.

The second Sunday evening we reconvene to hear from a second high-profile speaker. This year’s speaker is Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, former astronaut and current assistant secretary of Commerce.

Monday morning, afternoon, and Tuesday morning are devoted to special topics. Tuesday evening is devoted to group evaluation and feedback on the ten days.

Now about those special topics. In addition to core material, there are more particular aspects of the policy process than we can cover in any given year. Each year we pick and choose. Some of these sessions have focused on particular events, such as Hurricane Katrina, or the award of the NPOESS contract. Some have considered a specialized aspect of relevant policy: the valuation of information; geo-engineering, policy formulation at the state level, the role of the private sector in policy formulation, the role of NGO’s, water resource policy, communication, international aspects of science policy, national security dimensions of science policy, ethics, etc.

For most of our history, we’ve gone this alone at AMS. But in 2011, we’re very excited to be putting on the Colloquium in collaboration with the American Geophysical Union. They’ve been of special help this year in formulating our communication sessions, which will look closely at social media and at communicating science to the lay public. We’re looking forward to growing and deepening this collaboration in successive years, widening the range of scientist participation, and drawing in other professional societies.

A word of thanks is in order. The Colloquium owes any success it’s had to date to Ron McPherson and his original vision, and to the current Executive Director, Keith Seitter, who has sustained that vision and backed up the program with special resources from time to time to smooth over some rough spots. We owe a great deal to Dr. David Verardo of NSF for his vision and sustained support. We owe a great deal to John Sokich of NOAA’s National Weather Service and their commitment to fund NWS meteorologists to participate over the ten days each year. We owe a tremendous amount to very busy speakers who’ve had no shortage of alternative claims on their calendar, but who have made time to meet with participants, often multiple times. And we owe a debt to all the participants and their sponsoring institutions, who’ve each devoted ten days to this work. Participants will say that they’ve derived perhaps the most benefit from the time with their colleagues, just as Ron McPherson did from his NCAR Colloquium counterparts.  And they’ve been generous in putting in a good word for us to other scientists who are thinking of coming.

Gotta  run now. The 2011 Colloquium will be starting in less than an hour.

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