Soil science gains voice in the US government

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The Soil Science Society of America’s (SSSA) Science Policy Office, started in 1986 and based in Washington, DC, educates United States (US) federal government policymakers about and advocates for soil and the soil sciences. As a result, US agricultural, natural resources and environmental legislation and corresponding federal rules and regulations are more scientifically sound and appropriately incorporate and address soil science priorities. Moreover, funding for soil science supported by US federal agencies including the National Science Foundation, Department of Agriculture, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and others, increases annually, e.g., funding at the National Science Foundation for soil and soil-related sciences is estimated to total 400 million dollars!

Today’s US Congress, composed of 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, includes just five scientists— three physicists, one chemist and a psychologist. The average Congressional staff member (staff really do all of the heavy lifting for members of Congress) with whom the SSSA Science Policy Office interacts daily, is a 23-year-old with an undergraduate degree in political science. While these young people are generally very intelligent, enthusiastic and quick studies, many of them just don’t get the importance of soil and soil science. I remember vividly a meeting I had a couple of years ago with a young staff member of a California Representative. When I told him that we wanted the Congressman to join the Congressional Soils Caucus, he responded, “My boss is only interested in clean water issues.”

Concerned with the lack of soil science expertise in the US Congress, the Soil Science Society of America selected
its first Congressional Science Fellow (Fellows spend one year in the House of Representatives or Senate as a science advisor) in 1986; we selected our 33rd Fellow last month who works in the office of Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from the state of Illinois. Many of our Congressional Science Fellow alumni, the author being one of them, have elected to stay on in the Congress or White House and Federal Agencies or with a scientific society, to serve as a scientific resource and educate policymakers about the importance of and need to support soil and the soil sciences.

In 1994, the Soil Science Society of America established a half-time Science Policy Director’s (SPD) position also in Washington, DC which became a full-time one in 2000. The SPD interacts with federal policymakers, teaching them about and urging their support for soil and soil science. The SPD also communicates with SSSA members about important laws or rules and regulations addressing our sciences. Finally, the SPD taps into the more than 6,000 SSSA members informing them about and providing them opportunities to speak up for policies and funding supportive of soil and soil science. More details about SSSA’s “grassroots advocacy” program follow below.

Nine years later in 2003, the Soil Science Society of America selected its first Science Policy Intern (SPI) to assist the Science Policy Director. Serving from three to 12 months, SPIs handle much of the day-today tasks such as setting up meetings with Congressional offices, organizing workgroups to review and comment on draft legislation, or leading SSSA grassroots advocacy efforts.

Finally, two years ago (2007), the Soil Science Society of America created the Policy Programs Coordinator (PPC) position to provide additional project-management capacity for the SSSA Science Policy Office. The PPC has allowed the Science Policy Office to expand its reach significantly, broaden interactions with other scientific societies and disciplines, and take on major projects, e.g., climate change legislation.

In recent years, as the Soil Science Society of America’s Science Policy Office has matured, many invaluable policy tools have been developed to assist our science policy efforts including:

Congressional Soils Caucus which, composed of 49 US Representatives who support soil and soil science, serves as a voice for our sciences in the US Congress. SSSA has been instrumental in forming and supporting the CSC since 2006, when it was created, often providing the CSC with educational briefings on topics selected by CSC members. For example, July 2008, with parts of the nation suffering from severe forest fires, CSC members asked SSSA to provide an educational briefing on Post Wildfire Management of Soil. SSSA has also provided CSC members educational briefings on carbon sequestration, nutrient management and ecosystem services. Finally, SSSA has periodically provided CSC members with a scientific analysis of draft legislation, e.g. recent climate change legislation being debated in the House of Representatives and Senate. (learn more about the CSC at: https://www.soils.org/ science-policy/activities/congressional-soils-caucus).

SSSA Rapid Response Team was created to provide the Science Policy Director access to the incredible scientific expertise embodied in our 6,000 SSSA members. Often, Congressional offices contact us seeking expertise in a specific area, e.g., capacity for cropping systems employing conservation tillage practices to sequester carbon. The fast, sometimes crazy, pace of Congress requires us to provide an answer sometimes in as little as 30 minutes! The SSSA RRT often provides the Science Policy Office names of scientific experts in minutes.

SSSA Core Constituent Scientists Teams were recently developed to train SSSA members to interact with policymakers to influence legislation and funding supportive of our sciences. After all as the old saying goes, “All politics is local.” CCST leaders are SSSA members who’ve participated in Congressional Visits organized annually by the Science Policy Office during which SSSA scientists travel to Washington, DC to learn how to advocate for a specific policy goal and are then led on visits with their Representative and two Senators. Each CCST leader recruits two or more CCST members initially who also learn how to communicate effectively with Congress. Overtime, the number of and size of CCSTs will increase until one day (a dream really) there will be 435 CCSTS, corresponding to the 435 Congressional districts making up this great nation.

How does it all work? A recent successful effort to promote soil science in the 2008 Farm Bill (Farm Bill) provides a great example of how SSSA Science Policy resources and tools can be harnessed and employed together to achieve a specific policy goal. During the Farm Bill rewrite, while Congress reviewed, changed and added provisions addressing areas (titles) such as research, energy, horticulture, nutrition and others, SSSA identified in the Energy Title a biomass advisory committee (view committee at: http://www.brdisolutions. com/default.aspx) charged with counseling the US Secretaries of Agriculture and Energy on how best to produce the volume of biomass from the nation’s lands needed to meet a Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) set by Congress in 2007. Note: the RFS mandated that the volume of renewable fuel required to blend into gasoline increase from nine billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022. In our review of the Farm Bill legislation, we noticed that this biomass advisory committee was made of up engineers, economists, conservationists, industry representatives and other experts, but did not contain an agronomist, crop or soil scientist! While we were not surprised with this oversight given how the agronomic, crop and soil sciences are often not taken into consideration due to a lack of understanding by policymakers for their importance, we were still dismayed at this glaring omission of our expertise from the committee makeup. After all, biomass crops are plants and they grown in the soil! Who then is better qualified to counsel the Secretaries of Agriculture and Energy on how to reach the biomass goals then an agronomist, crop or soil scientist? Shorting this tale, below I’ve listed the steps taken and Science Policy tools employed successfully, so that today an agronomist, crop or soil scientist slot exists on this important biomass advisory committee:

  • April 2007—SSSA Science Policy Office, while reviewing Farm Bill text, discovers missing agronomic, crop and soil science expertise on biomass advisory committee.
  • May 2007—SSSA Science Policy Office asks SSSA Rapid Response Team (RRT) to identify scientists with expertise in biomass production for biofuels. SSSA RRT responds with list of experts and indicated scientists are contacted and asked to develop a quick one-page biomass primer for members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, explaining the role of the agronomic, crop and soil sciences in achieving Renewable Fuel Standard biomass production goals. Sciences. Note: from contacting SSSA RRT to completion of biomass primer took two weeks).
  • May 2007—SSSA contacts SSSA South Dakota Core Constituent Scientist Team (CCST) members to seek their support persuading Congressional Soils Caucus member Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin to introduce an amendment during the Farm Bill debate to add an agronomist, crop or soil scientist to membership of the biomass advisory committee. SSSA Science Policy Director meets with Herseth Sandlin’s office to educate them about the issue and provide the biomass primer. Strong response from South Dakota CCST members and support from fellow Congressional Soils Caucus members results in Representative Herseth Sandlin introducing amendment which passes.
  • November 2007—SSSA Science Policy Director meets with staff from office of Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat, Iowa), Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to explain the biomass advisory committee issue, provide the biomass primer and seek his support for similar biomass advisory committee amendment. SSSA Iowa CCST urges Senator Harkin to include provision in Farm Bill. Senator Harkin includes provision to include an agronomist, crop or soil scientist to the biomass advisory committee in the Senate version of the Farm Bill.
  • December 2007—Senate passes Farm Bill containing our provision.
  • May 2008—Farm Bill is signed into law by President.

The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) Science Policy Office staff, SSSA Rapid Response Team, SSSA Scientists, SSSA Core Constituent Scientist Teams and the Congressional Soils Caucus, working in concert towards a common goal, were successful; one of our scientists is a member of the biomass advisory board today! Additional opportunities for the SSSA Science Policy Office program exist now that President Obama has released his top priorities: Renewable energy, Climate change, Environmental issues (air and water quality), Food production and security, Science funding, Science education and workforce. All of these priorities must include consideration of and roles for soil science and involve the soil resource. The Soil Science Society of America Science Policy Office is poised to achieve even greater policy successes during the coming years.

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