By Dylan McDowell
Melissa Errend is a catalyst in the ongoing reaction between science and policy. The self-described problem-solver is tasked with integrating fisheries and ocean science into the value-laden world of Congressional politics to support her boss, Sen. Maria Cantwell, and the people of Washington State.
Errend is one of four Knauss Fellows from Oregon Sea Grant's 2016–17 cohort. Run by the National Sea Grant office, the prestigious John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship places graduate students focused on ocean and Great Lakes issues in legislative or executive offices in Washington, D.C., for a year. About 1,100 graduate students have participated in the program since its inception in 1979. This year, Errend is one of only 12 students serving in a legislative office, where she is a resident scientific expert informing political decisions, crafting questions for hearings, and assisting with writing novel policy to solve national problems.
As a native of Portland, Ore., and an Oregon State University alumna, Errend is living outside the Pacific Northwest for the first time. She spent her undergraduate career in community ecology, conducting genetics work in a lab, but transitioned from alleles to economics for her master's program, in search of ways to make science relevant in decision-making.
"At my core, I am very much a problem-solver," Errend said. "I am looking for the best and most efficient ways to make a difference and connect scientific information where it's needed and to effect change."
Errend's initial exposure to Sea Grant was through her summer 2012 experience as a marine science and policy intern. As a Sea Grant Summer Scholar, Errend organized a regional workshop, maintained travel reimbursement spreadsheets, and tracked Japanese tsunami marine debris issues, among many other activities. During one particularly hectic week, Errend said, she was "swinging from conference call to conference call, and from one e-mail deluge to another."
Errend's first experience in politics came with joining the Women in Policy student group at OSU, in which she remained active throughout her undergraduate and graduate years. Her involvement sparked an interest in the policy process that led her to OSU's coastal research station and the Environmental Protection Agency for a master's project using economics to inform ecology.
"Going into marine resource management, I wanted to work as close to the interface of science, economics and policymaking as possible," Errend recalled. "Being at the Hatfield Marine Science Center and at EPA, specifically, was perfect because all of these different state and federal agencies are located together."
Her research required her to pore over scientific literature on benefits derived from ecosystems, such as water filtration from a wetland. The project was part of a larger effort to ensure decision-makers have access to the most-relevant data when considering policy for different sites. These same skills are essential to her work in D.C.
"I've been impressed by her ability to dive into topics new to her and get smart quickly and chase down answers she needs to put the best product forward," says Nicole Teutschel, Errend's mentor in Cantwell's office and a former Knauss Fellow herself.
The exposure to federal policies and programs during her master's thesis motivated Errend to apply for the Knauss Fellowship to better understand the role of science in Congress. Although she is now 3,000 miles away from home, Errend says she often reaches out to former colleagues in Oregon to stay abreast of the latest research.
"Her previous experience working at the intersection between economics and ecology really set her up to be successful," says Ted DeWitt, an EPA ecologist and Errend's mentor on her master's thesis. "That willingness to take on big challenges and to be enthusiastic, and not be daunted by the fact that she is going to be self-taught in new areas, will serve her well on the Hill."
In just over a month at her sixth-floor Senate office, Errend has done everything from drafting statements for committee hearings to meeting with stakeholders about budget appropriations. She still expresses childlike excitement about her new surroundings, such as walking by the Capitol on the way to her office or spotting a senator on the street.
Errend also admits she has a more pragmatic understanding of the role of science in public policy. Within her first week, Errend remembers simultaneously trying to persuade the Senate Appropriations Committee to get funding for NOAA's ocean acidification programs and working on a bill to increase response and research for sick and injured marine mammals. Both of these efforts required her to reconcile the latest research with the economic realities of the appropriations process.
The Knauss Fellowship has given Errend a unique understanding of how scientific findings interact with stakeholders' values to form successful policy. She says she can picture herself staying involved in Congressional policy, either in a member's office or off the Hill, providing scientific information to staffers.
"I have been surprised by the weight that my opinion has been given," she said. "Each day, I am working on four or five different issues that seem completely unrelated, from ocean acidification in the morning to climate engineering in the afternoon."
Errend's BlackBerry suddenly buzzed with 12 new e-mails, and she prepared herself to become an expert on the next emerging issue entering her inbox.
She looked up and smiled. "Every day is a new adventure."