By Lynn Anderson Davy
University of Iowa Strategic Communication

When it came time for David Cwiertny to plan his sabbatical, a time away from classroom teaching duties that many professors use to make progress on a book or conduct research, the University of Iowa College of Engineering professor decided to take a different route. He decided to go into politics.

Not as an elected official, however, but as a congressional staffer for a key environmental and energy committee—a government body that has seen its fair share of political feuds in recent months.

Cwiertny is one of 35 science and technology experts who are spending a year working in the U.S. Congress as part of a fellowship program sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

As a staff member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, he has worked on some of the most pressing environmental issues of our day, including cleanup of lead-tainted drinking water in Michigan, a controversial proposal to store nuclear waste in the Nevada desert, and the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing and industry.

“My expertise is water quality and water resources, but the committee’s jurisdiction covers much more than that,” says Cwiertny, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the UI Public Policy Center’s Environmental Policy Research Program. “Needless to say, I’ve had to work beyond my core discipline. But that’s made the job a lot of fun. It’s certainly never dull.”

Besides sharpening his policy skills, Cwiertny also has witnessed the first 100 days of the Trump administration, as well as the effects of a Republican takeover of the House and Senate. It’s an experience, he says, that has taught him a lot about the role of government in crafting effective environmental and energy initiatives.

“While I enjoy research, I wanted to learn more about how to translate lab findings into actionable public policy that could be used to improve and protect our environment,” Cwiertny says. “This experience has helped me to see more clearly the needs that our research community can fill while also teaching me how to best communicate research findings to a wide range of stakeholders.”

As the fellowship program enters its final months—Cwiertny plans to return to Iowa in August—Iowa Now asked the professor to look back on his time in Washington, D.C., and reflect on how the experience could change his approach to academic research and classroom instruction.

What are some of the highlights of your work on Capitol Hill?

There are so many highlights, too many to mention here, but I have really enjoyed contributing to the legislative process. For example, I’ve had the privilege of writing talking points and questions for hearings that have been used by members of Congress. I’ve also contributed to letters written by members of Congress that have been sent to federal agency administrators and even to President Trump.

There are also fun highlights associated with the special access fellows have at the Capitol. I’ve been able to sit on the floor of the House of Representatives during a legislative debate and submit a bill. It may sound silly, but it’s also pretty cool to be able to ride the subway and tram cars that take members of Congress to and from their office buildings to the Capitol. I still get a bit starstruck when I see some of the more well-known members of Congress—Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tim Kaine, for example.

What has been the biggest surprise for you as an outsider about the way work gets done in Washington?

Before coming to Washington, I didn’t understand the considerable advantages that come with being a member of the majority party. For example, the majority gets a much bigger budget allocation for committee staff. So, in this Congress, Republicans have about twice as many staff working for them compared to Democrats.

The majority party also sets the committee agenda, including which hearings to have and which bills to consider. At hearings, the minority party is allowed one witness for every three or four from the majority side. This allows the majority to shape and control the narrative around a particular issue; it’s a tremendous advantage that I don’t suspect most Americans appreciate. At least I didn’t.

What is the atmosphere like in Washington? From the outside, it seems like it might be acrimonious.

That’s not a false perception. There aren’t too many issues on which the Republicans and Democrats agree, and even when both sides identify a problem, like funding for infrastructure, they usually have very different approaches to solving it. It’s also been difficult for those who have worked on the Hill for some time to watch as the current administration reverses policies, effectively throwing out the many years of work it took to implement those policies in the first place. But that’s the reality of our governmental system.

Do you see this experience impacting the way you teach or conduct research?

Absolutely. My colleagues and I at the university recently received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a new graduate program in sustainable water development. One of the goals of this program is to support innovative training that will help graduate students find careers outside academia. In the fall, I’ll be co-teaching a new course titled Politics and Economics of Food, Energy and Water Systems, and my experience here in Washington has been invaluable in developing this course and shaping its content. Many of the issues I’ve worked on during the past year—safe drinking water, alternative energy—are and will continue to be directly relevant to my teaching.

Do you hope to become more involved in policy work in the future?

Yes. As director of the Environmental Policy Research Program at the UI Public Policy Center, I’ll continue to work at the interface of science and policy, focusing most on issues such as water quality and agriculture, issues that impact Iowa. I’ve done this kind of work before, but I hope to do more once I get back to campus.