American Chemical Society Joins With SRA to Brief Congress on Water-Related Hazards

In response to recent events involving water-based hazards, such as the Elk River (West Virginia) chemical spill and the Oso (Washington) mudslide, this September 12, 2014, briefing on Capitol Hill discussed the relationship between information and risk mitigation.

SRA Member John Norman submitted the following report:

On September 12, 2014. the Society for Risk Analysis  partnered  with the American Chemical Society’s Science & the Congress Project to sponsor the Congressional briefing “Water-Based Hazards: Risk Mitigation.” After a long absence, this Congressional briefing was SRA’s launch back onto Capitol Hill; previous briefings were presented on such topics as nanotechnology, vulnerability and security, and pharmaceuticals in drinking water. Following the Elk River chemical spill and the Oso mudslide, policymakers debated what are the “right” policy decisions following a disaster; is it better to prevent such disaster in the future by removing vulnerable infrastructure or does it make more sense to mitigate and rebuild? The assembled panelists hailed from government, academia, and industry and presented approaches used for river and coastal flooding, waterway spills, and landslides. The panelists presented information on the use of post-event assessments to inform reconstruction policy and the use of comprehensive risk profiles to preparing for and avoiding costly water-based disasters.

As we move into a new legislative session in Congress, there are many challenges facing the nation. However, there is one challenge that seems to survive every election cycle: how do we, as members of the scientific community, effectively communicate our research to policymakers? Science and technology should play a critical role in addressing the nation’s challenges, yet these considerations seem to go unheard. Despite what many think, policymakers do not suffer from a lack of information; they are flooded with information on a daily basis. So how do we assist policymakers gain clarity on the issues and cut through the noise?

Objective, scientific engagement with policymakers has been the subject of some debate for the past several years. A recent survey conducted by Antioch University found nearly 90% of researchers believed there was a lack of communication between policymakers and researchers; however, the same survey revealed less than 60% of these researcher were certain who their federal representatives are. The survey highlighted an important gap in scientific communications and the results have not gone unnoticed.

Scientific societies from all disciplines have recognized the importance of this deficit and some have started rolling out initiatives to increase member engagement with policymakers. These initiatives include symposia and training seminars on science communication; web based advocacy tools to reach policymakers through phone, email, or social media; and interactive websites detailing relevant issues under consideration by policymakers. Another venue to communicate scientific issues with Capitol Hill is Congressional briefings.

A Congressional briefing is a non-partisan, informational roundtable on a subject of interest to law makers. Congressional briefings are not lobbying efforts; the panelists do not advocate for one particular course of action and do not discuss pending legislation. Congressional briefings provide Congressional members, committees, caucuses, and staffers with objective scientific information with the goal to promote the use of science in the legislative process. The briefings also foster and strengthen relations between the panelists, the staff and members Congress and their respective organizations.

The panelists involved in this briefing included:

  • Laura Pence, University of Hartford: moderated the briefing.
  • Laurence Becker, State Geologist, Vermont Geological Survey: discussed the creation of geological survey maps to assist mud-slide mitigation action.
  • Carlos Duart, President, CDR Maguire:  discussed resilience versus recovery and new technologies available to help policy makers decide which is suited for their situation.
  • Paul Locke, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: discussed the need for better science to allow policymakers to make better and more informed public health decisions.
  • Adam Parris, National Oceanic and Atmospheric  Administration: discussed the importance of accurate information for coastal resilience.

Following the panel discussions, the panelists engaged in a spirited debate and answered questions from Congressional staff members. Some questions asked of the panelists involved the feasibility of sensors to detect chemical spills and the use of social media to provide faster notifications to the public; are there faster ways to obtain toxicity  data on chemicals; and whether or not states are implementing risk mapping to mitigate the type of disaster in Oso.

The Congressional briefing “Water-Based Hazards: Risk Mitigation” was recorded and posted to several social media sites. If you are interested in watching the entire briefing, you can find recordings at: