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Where Science and Policy Meet…

April 19, 2011

As we work to provide outreach to the public on the Marcellus Shale, we’ve learned a lot about, well…a lot of things. We’d like to share an anecdote about our experiences and highlight what happened while we were in the early draft stages of one of our pamphlets on Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM).

As we began to research information to write these packets last fall, we were all novices in many of the subdisciplines we were about to write about. So our first task was to engage in conversations with people who were actively working on what we were learning about. To tackle the issue of NORM in the Marcellus Shale, a colleague initially contacted both the Department of Conservation and the Department of Health to point her in the right direction of good source materials, and to answer a few questions she had.  She found that “when government internet sources were sometimes outdated or difficult to sort through I made some contacts within the agencies.  Although the data I was searching for was scarce, the folks I spoke to searched through their databases, consulted colleagues, and got back to me with as much information as they could in a timely manner. ”

These agencies have a lot of work on their plate, and they were very happy to help us, who were also trying to educate the public. We had a lot of information to sort through, and spent much of the winter writing up a draft of the NORM pamphlet. Of course, you know as well as we do that the political climate has done a great deal of shifting in the last 9 or 10 months. These shifts have impacted our workloads here at PRI, where we try to do a great deal of important outreach with a staff that is sometimes working on many different projects at once. This has certainly changed the speed with which we have been able to research and draft our papers on different aspects of the Marcellus. My dry erase markers have run out of ink because of the number of times I’ve shifted my deadlines forward a month.

But we’re not the only people involved in writing these pamphlets. They must be read internally for consistency, and for that we tap numerous members of the staff who have deadlines of their own to meet. After any edits from that round are made, the pamphlets are sent to our external evaluators (who, in many cases, we contacted during our initial research phase) so that they can be sure we’ve discussed everything they think is important about the issue, that we’ve explained it well (and nothing was lost in the transition from technical papers to public outreach), and that we’ve not included too much unnecessary information.

Our external reviewers have also been impacted by the economic and political climate of the last year. Professors have had to rely on more grants with fewer graduate students, professional geologists have experienced a flurry of demand, and people working at agencies like the DOH and DEC have become swamped with SGEIS demands and budget cuts.

With respect to our NORM pamphlet, we’re getting close (look for a print release in May or early June!). We’re in the final round of revisions in collaboration with our external reviewers at the DOH. But external reviewing alone of this pamphlet has taken almost 2 months (including DOH, DEC, and scientists in academia). My dry erase markers have taught me a thing or two about the revision process. The more people you have reviewing it, the longer it takes, and the worse the economy, the less likely there will be a timely turn around. This happens in small non-profits, the commercial sector, and the government sector equally. I’ve also learned this: The more noble the cause, the more willing people are to fit you in their schedule. We couldn’t say nicer things about all of our external (and internal, for that matter) reviewers. They’ve been amazingly supportive and are happy with the work we’re doing, and they’ve spent a lot of their time volunteering their expertise to make each pamphlet as good as it can be.

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