“I always discuss science in terms of the value to society. There always has to be value. It’s never about THE science. The science is lovely to only the people who find it beautiful, but it is valuable to people and they need to understand the value.”
A Conversation with Steve Bohlen
Program Director for Nuclear and Domestic Security
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Steve Bohlen was the Associate Chief Geologist of the United States Geological Survey from 1995 to 2000, and was responsible for the research program at that agency including the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction, Climate Change, Global Energy, and Minerals Resource programs. From 2000 to 2008 he went on to become the CEO of Joint Oceanographic Institutions, heading the NSF-funded global effort in scientific ocean drilling. He’s had extensive experience in building programs and conveying the value of science.
We talked to Steve about his experience with Congress and working with audiences of mixed technical skills or mixed scientists and lay people.
Why do you think scientists have trouble championing their ideas?
I think people are generally uncomfortable when they hear detailed technical scientific information. It’s intimidating. That’s what scientists are up against when they explain their ideas.
I’ve seen scientists get so wrapped up in their science that they are oblivious to their audience. When they have an appreciative audience, scientists tend to expand their topic. They get so excited they forget to keep the audience in mind.
I always admired what Carl Sagan did. He brought complex concepts into the living room and made them very real. I learned a lot from that. I learned that in order to demonstrate that you are scientist, you don’t have to present things in complex ways, you just have to open the wonder of the world to people.
How did you hone your ability to communicate effectively?
I think a good training ground is speaking to lay audiences and learning from their questions. For me it was teaching. I started as faculty at SUNY Stony Brook, then moved to the US Geological Survey research arm in California. One day the USGS Director literally called me out of the blue and asked me to come to Washington. He said, “I looked at your record and saw that you taught Geology 101 for seven years. I knew the department would never have had you teach that course if you didn’t have good ratings and I knew that you knew how to teach to people who didn’t really care about what you were teaching them which is exactly what we need here.”
Talking to lay audiences like Lion’s Clubs and listening to the level of questions helped me. You’ve got to think of this as earnest honest questions, not that someone is stupid or below you. They are teaching you something. You have to put in your time and energy and you’ll get something back.
Tell us about working with policy makers and Congress. What have you found to be an important part of championing scientific ideas?
I always discuss science in terms of the value to society. There always has to be value. It’s never about THE science. The science is lovely to only the people who find it beautiful, but it is valuable to people and they need to understand the value.
Can you recount a time when you met with a senator?
When I was working for the USGS I was in talking with Senator Slade Gorton from the state of Washington, to build support for the global seismographic network. This was of interest to the University of Washington. I had my 15 minutes with him and as we got up to leave he looked up at the huge portrait of Mt. Rainier in his office. He asked, “Should I be worried about that”? And I said, “Well actually you should. It’s a decade volcano.” That was the key phrase. And that caught his attention.
I explained that a decade volcano is on the list of an international volcanological society who feel these are the most dangerous volcanoes on the planet. It was as if 14 grappling hooks grabbed this guy. He is a busy senator who was very powerful at that time. He asked me questions for an hour.
I explained that when they erupt, volcanoes always find the same path. I pointed at housing developments in the Deschutes area. I said it’s a great place to build houses, nice and flat, easy place to build, good ground water, but sometime in the next 10,000 years or a few hundred years, that neighborhood is toast. He was absolutely a student for an hour.
I occasionally threw in a technical term. When I did, I would say this is a technical term and this is what it means. I almost never used technical jargon. I would always talk about it in terms of the important significance and the value to the constituents he represents.
The phrase decade volcano was important because it caught his attention. That is a significant period of time. That’s about two senatorial terms, so I’m guessing he may have been thinking: “I might have to worry about this.”
What other advice do you have for fellow scientists talking to decision makers?
I think its important when you are talking about science to never portray you know something about some area if you don’t. You also need to be able to talk about an area you do know about suddenly and extemporaneously.
That’s what happened with Senator Gorton. We met to talk about the global seismographic network. It led to a conversation about the USGS volcano hazards program and the fact that the nation has the third largest number of active volcanoes in the world. That was something he didn’t know. He learned that starting in Seattle and going all the way to Tokyo there are severe volcano hazards for aircraft.
I was aware that there were things that he would benefit from knowing about the danger that Rainier exhibits. I helped him appreciate that aircraft safety was a major issue. I said, “You can imagine how a cloud containing small pieces of rock has a decidedly different impact on an airplane engine than a cloud containing water vapor.” Simple language. And he got the whole concept. I didn’t have to go through the whole thing about what happens to a rock when it goes in an airplane engine.
This discussion was a happy circumstance. What it taught me is that you would get these opportunities, and they happened to me frequently on Capitol Hill. I spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill. The USGS was under attack from a Republican Congress as a government agency that did not provide value to the American public and should be eliminated. What I learned was to be ready to talk about and have a few “gotcha” talking points about all of the USGS work around things that are important to people, things that are of value to the nation, that would basically without saying it was why taxpayer money should go to pay for this rather than buying school lunches or other things that clearly had been demonstrated by longitudinal studies to have very significant positive impact to society. That was my frame of reference.
How do you get your message framed in a way that it will be well received by a senator or congressman?
I was trained by a legislative assistant for Senator Byrd in West Virginia. He always said you must be able to write down your message in five bullet points using simple language. You should explain the topic, why the senator should care about it, what the significance it is to his or her constituency or a broad part of the population, what the longer term significance is, and why this matters more than a starving child’s school lunch. If you can’t do that, you are not ready for a meeting.
A senator will always ask, what do you want me to do? And your answer needs to have significance beyond your self-interest. Show the return on investment. For instance, the significance of geologic mapping is a pretty hard sell. We knew that so we talked about it in terms of the economic downstream benefits of geologic mapping as they are related to California. We talked about the number of new mines to be opened. And the cost of highways that had to be engineered because of the geology. We built the case for the geologic mapping program by discussing billions of dollars of construction and the number of jobs created because of mining activity. So if you give me a dollar, I will return to you hundreds of dollars that matter to your constituents.
How should a scientist prepare when they have a chance to tell their story to Congress?
You have to do your homework and find reliable research reports that back you up. Be conservative. Never oversell. The one thing you never ever do, is try to bullshit a member of Congress. Never use information that isn’t verifiable, 100% backed up and solid. Members of Congress have good bullshit detectors and they are likely to turn around and say they would like to know more.
The only thing you have is your credibility. If you are called on it, you have to be able to produce. Don’t inflate numbers. Don’t use something that you can’t back up. Ask yourself, if this story appeared on the front page of the Washington Post, would you stand by it?
What process do you go through to prepare your thoughts for a meeting like this?
I figure out what the issues are and find out what committees the member of Congress sit on and what legislation they sponsored recently. I work to understand their constituency. Where are they from? Who do they represent? What universities are there? What prominent academics may have been talking to their staff? What are the issues in their state, beyond the district? What do they care about? What are the issues that they have formed odd alliances on? What have they done that is out of the ordinary or unexpected and is that germane to my issue?
Think about why is it that you are going to see this person. What am I asking them to do and is it even reasonable for me to ask? You need to answer those questions to other people’s satisfaction (like the senator’s staff).
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