Two weeks after I started at COMPASS, I found myself in a conference room getting to know all of my new colleagues face-to-face for the first time. At one point Karen McLeod, COMPASS’s Director of Science, asked me when we could organize a Congressional briefing on the topic of ecological resilience.
Resilience is a deceptively simple concept on the surface. A resilient ecosystem can withstand shocks and rebuild itself. This applies to any ecosystem, but in the marine realm, coral reefs are one of the best studied. A resilient coral reef can be partially wiped out by bleaching and bounce back to a vibrant state in short order. A less resilient coral reef might not be able to weather bleaching and be overtaken by algae.
As the newest member of the team, I was nervous about my answer to Karen’s question: Never.
It’s not as though ecological resilience was a completely foreign concept on the Hill. On the contrary, many organizations were working hard to make it central to debates over how to manage our resources, including coral reefs.
But the concept was esoteric enough that it wasn’t getting traction, and I couldn’t see a way to make the science of resilience the basis of a briefing. When you get past the initial concept, and into the science of why some ecosystems are resilient and others aren’t, it gets… well… complex. And too far down into the weeds to be of interest to a legislator. As I explained to Karen at the time, the science of resilience was just too many steps removed from the type of policy questions that Congress usually asks; I couldn’t conceive of a clear enough connection to their interests to draw anything more than a few Congressional interns to a briefing.
That was January. A few months later COMPASS brokered a conversation with a Congressman about ecosystem based management. The concept of resilience, although only a minor part of the conversation initially, resonated with him and a detailed conversation led him deeper into the specifics of ecological resilience. He was keenly interested in the idea that it may be possible to manage an ecosystem in such a way that it is able to maintain its resilience, making it less likely to collapse (and more likely to rebound), if it were disturbed by a storm, pollution, or heavy use. Not long after, he introduced an amendment that would have included “resilience” as a goal for coral reef conservation and management, sparking a lively debate among his colleagues. He withdrew the amendment in exchange for a promise that his colleagues would learn more about this concept and what it might mean for coral reefs. In September I found myself putting together my first Congressional science briefing… on the science of ecological resilience. Perhaps “never” hadn’t been the right word choice.
The amendment (literally to insert the single word “resilience” into some legislative text) changed the context of the dialogue and created a very concrete motivation for staffers to learn about resilience. The briefing was packed.
Follow-up conversations with scientists led Congressional staff to decide to incorporate resilience into legislation. By October, the House of Representatives had passed that legislation, with resilience featured prominently.
This experience drove home two points for me, both of which I’d known but would never treat lightly again: First, having scientists in the room can change the way policy conversations unfold. Second, when trying to find the opportunities for a body of science to inform a piece of policy, the connections will appear when you dive into the details. In other words, context matters. Everyone agrees science can inform policy. But if you want to see it actually happen you have to be able to identify what piece of science can inform which policy decision in what way, and you have to make those connections.
I learned some great lessons. “Never” can come a whole lot sooner than you expect. And, the devil may be in the details, but so are the opportunities.