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From Paralichthys to Policy

Kenneth Erickson,
Congressional Affairs Fellow, NOAA Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs

What makes a fisheries biologist qualified to communicate with Congress about satellites and space policy? The same skills that make a successful graduate student: good time management, effective communication and the ability to process and distill complex information.

Much like graduate students must manage classes and research, explain statistical models to public stakeholders and conduct literature reviews, a congressional affairs specialist must manage incoming requests of different urgency, concisely deliver information to members of Congress and their staff and locate any information required.

In my placement with NOAA’s Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs (OLIA), I experience marine science policy in action every day—sitting at the intersection of Congress and the Executive Branch. Think of OLIA as a post office between the agency and Congress. Communications from Congress to NOAA come in through OLIA and then are distributed to the line offices and programs. Similarly, anything going from NOAA to Capitol Hill gets sent through OLIA.

Throughout my Knauss Fellowship with OLIA, I have been developing my people management skills by responding to Congressional requests and informing Congress about what NOAA science shares with the American public every day. So far, I have facilitated 62 briefings to 48 congressional offices and NOAA’s authorizing and appropriations committees. Together with the NOAA subject matter experts, these briefings provide congressional staff with the information they need to draft legislation, fund congressional and administration priorities, and perform oversight. Outside of briefings, OLIA answers questions, transmits reports, and responds to letters from Congress to help facilitate the flow of information. Without a doubt, this year has given me an upfront and personal experience with national policy decisions affecting marine and atmospheric resources.

Looking back, my realization that scientists had crucial roles in the policy arena began during a semester at North Carolina State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology. There, I attended a North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission meeting where I listened to commercial fishermen, recreational anglers and lifelong coastal residents describe the real-life impacts of the Commission’s decisions. The Commission not only had to listen to the biologists but also factor in socio-economic and political influences to make decisions that served public trust users equitably. It was there in Morehead City, NC that I finally understood a favorite saying of one of my professors, “Wildlife management is people management.” Of course the Commission could not tell the fish what to do, so instead the policymakers have to manage the actions that we as resource users take, to change how people interact with and subsequently impact the environment. Likewise, the health of nature has very real consequences for people’s lives.

My interest in learning how policy impacted people continued at Louisiana State University, where I studied the life history and population dynamics of Southern Flounder [Paralichthys lethostigma (pah-rah-lic-theez leh-thoe-stig-mah)] in Louisiana for my master’s research. Spending time at the fish houses talking with fishers about their perspectives on the health of the population and why they thought there were less fish around now was one of my favorite parts of my study. I realized that since I was doing research to inform management and policy, I should go straight to the source and become involved in marine policy decisions.

So I achieved my goal of becoming directly involved in policy decisions, and, at the same time, broadened my scientific interests, which improved my ability to see the interconnectedness of marine and atmospheric sciences. Although my background is in fisheries, at various points this year, my portfolio has included supporting leadership from the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) in meetings with members of Congress regarding NOAA’s space activities and attending 15 briefings during the week of Great Lakes Day to help highlight Sea Grant’s outreach efforts in the region. As the country emerged from the pandemic, I got to travel to Charleston, SC and Ketchikan, AK with the NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations to attend briefings on new facility projects.

Never did I imagine I would facilitate conversations with stakeholders from everywhere between the Caribbean and the Arctic about floating docks, space commerce or NOAA Education. These experiences have shown me how successful marine management can be supported by  a “One NOAA” approach, where data is collected by NOAA’s ships and satellites, used by decision makers and scientists in the Agency, and disseminated to the public through programs like the Office of Education’s Science on a Sphere. In these new challenges, I have found success using those same skills I built in graduate school: good time management, effective communication and the ability to process and distill complex information.

Ultimately, my fellowship has taught me that my interests extend beyond the traditional definition of fisheries, and encompass the breadth of marine and atmospheric science required to fully understand our natural systems and sustainably manage resources. While managing communication with congressional staff and the NOAA programs to meet tight deadlines is different from trying to catch flounder in Lake Calcasieu, LA, both are crucial components to creating effective policy. Regardless of where the tides take me in the future, I am a better scientist for knowing how policymakers use research, and a better policymaker for knowing the scientific process. Equipped with this newfound perspective, I have come to one, totally original conclusion, that marine management is all about people management.

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