APS Associate Director of Public Affairs Francis Slakey swore off Hill receptions and power lunches years ago in favor of more laid-back meetings over coffee with congressional staffers. And he found he was much more effective in representing the interests of APS members on Capitol Hill when he detached himself from the public face of lobbying. Now, in his new position directing the day-to-day activities of the APS Office of Public Affairs (OPA) in Washington, DC, his trademark low-profile approach continues to pay off.The OPA devotes the equivalent of 2.5 full-time employees to working on budget issues, aimed at increasing federal funding for physics. Slakey focuses on what he terms "politically volatile" issues: climate change, nuclear weapons, and creationism, to name a few of the most recent. He has assisted in drafting federal legislation, written OpEds for Members of Congress, and helped write several APS studies, including the recently released APS Hydrogen Report (See APS News, May 2004) and APS Modern Pit Facility Report.
"Slakey is creative, strategic and targeted in his approach to the Hill, which makes him particularly effective," says one senior Congressional staffer for a House representative who has worked with him on key issues.
Being effective on the more controversial issues frequently calls for unusual strategies. Take climate change, a problem with two basic components: reducing CO2 emissions, and increasing domestic resilience to climate change-such as developing new crop strains that can withstand more severe droughts.
Nearly four years ago, Slakey found himself facing a new administration that was strongly opposed to placing any further limits on CO2 emissions. Rather than beat his head against the wall, or give up on the issue altogether, Slakey took a different tack, choosing to focus instead on improving resilience to the climate changes that were already occurring.
The first step was fostering relations with pivotal Republicans in Congress who might be receptive to a program aimed at resilience. Slakey contacted and was ultimately successful in working with Rep. JC Watts (R-OK), who at the time was Chairman of the House Republican Conference, a top position in the House of Representatives.
Slakey also sought out unusual alliances: in this instance, the insurance companies, who have a vested interest in averting weather-related disasters. He was initially criticized by left-wing environmental groups for this strategy, which some thought undermined efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, but most have now accepted the new focus on resilience.
Slakey used several examples to promote the issue. In Watts' case he focused on the recent and severe droughts affecting the wheat crop in Oklahoma. Another example was a town in West Virginia that began suffering routinely from floods because of shifting weather patterns. Their solution was to blast the top off a nearby mountain and pick up the entire town and move it across the river. "That's about the most uncreative solution they could have devised," says Slakey. "We needed a federal program that offered more creative problem solving."
It took a year to begin seeing results. First, Rep. Watts wrote an OpEd and gave a speech calling for more federal emphasis on climate change resilience. Then, Watts introduced the Weather Safety Act calling for a multimillion dollar program on resilience research.
It's that willingness to foster ties with both Democrats and Republicans that makes Slakey so effective on the Hill. "He works very well across the aisle to bring people together and find common ground on a given issue," says a senior Senate aide who has worked with Slakey in the past. "There's a saying on the Hill: 'Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good.' He recognizes it's more important to get things done, and he's able to gain people's trust over time."
Slakey also looks for new ways to communicate science and science policy to a broader audience, such as local newspapers and even new forms of media. For example, the hydrogen report wound up with a link on AOL's daily news page. It was seen by more than 30 million AOL subscribers—a larger audience than that for "American Idol."
As adjunct professor of physics and biology at Georgetown University, Slakey is also helping train the next generation of politically savvy scientists with a unique class on science policy. "The students come in knowing almost nothing about politics," says Slakey. The students break into teams, identify a social problem with a scientific component, develop a political solution to the problem, and then go to Capitol Hill and lobby. He grades them on what they accomplish on the Hill.
Not surprisingly, the approach he advocates in the classroom is a microcosm of the one he so successfully employs on behalf of the APS: focusing on building a grassroots contingent and looking for provocative alliances. The students have roughly four months to develop that solution, but often that's all it takes. This past semester, one team drafted their own bill to replace mercury thermometers with alcohol thermometers in schools across the country. On May 6, Rep Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced the "Safe Schools Mercury Reduction Act" into the House of Representatives (H.R. 4260).
"Slakey knows exactly what he wants and exactly which Member or Senator is most likely to champion his causes," a Capitol Hill staffer said. "And his personal style is easygoing and ego-less—a rarity on Capitol Hill!"
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Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette