Dale L. Orth, Ph.D.
ACS Congressional Fellow, 2010-2011
Dale Orth earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1994. His doctoral work focused on the inhomogeneous broadening of impurity transitions in crystalline hosts. Since 2006, he has served as chair of the Western State College (Gunnison, CO) Department of Natural and Environmental Science. In addition, he is a reviewer for the Journal of Chemical Education and member of the ACS General Chemistry Examination Committee. The ACS Congressional fellowship was Dr. Orth’s sabbatical project. He worked for Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).
Year-End Fellowship Report
Where did the time go? My service in Senator Rockefeller’s office as an ACS Congressional fellow is over, but based upon my experience and discussions with past fellows, I know I will always remain a fellow. In the past year, I was able to learn quite a bit about how Congress works, educational policy, and important bits and pieces from many other policy areas including science funding, taxes, and debt ceiling increases.
I have been on sabbatical from Western State College of Colorado, and the best analogy I can make to the immersion in the political process this fellowship provides is to beginning graduate school. While I certainly felt my undergraduate experience had prepared me for graduate school, I remember the start as a lesson in humility where things really were moving at such a different pace. While I knew the basics of chemistry, I wasn’t able at the beginning to know the complete history of my research project – who were the respected contributors and which were the most important experiments and theories, or which experimental details weren’t that important. I had to go read the articles again to find something that had become as familiar as his phone number to my research advisor. Similarly, I felt prepared for this fellowship and the orientation through AAAS is excellent. But, the learning curve in the political arena is just as steep. Just as it takes the right combination of project and advisor to succeed in graduate school, finding the right fit in an office is critical to a fellow’s success.
I worked in the office of Senator Rockefeller. He was elected to the Senate in 1984 and is the senior senator from West Virginia. He chairs the Commerce, Science, & Transportation committee and is very interested in STEM education, educational technology, and how education can succeed in rural areas. As a U.S. Senator, of course he has many other interests, but those were the interests that drew me to this office and which I worked on most directly. Of course, given the needs of the office in any particular week, I have sometimes worked on some interesting topics in quite different areas – a breadth of experience I was hoping to have.
As a fellow, I was able to do a tremendous number of things. While we all learned that the Senate is part of the legislative branch of government, legislation is not the only way to achieve goals. I met with constituents from West Virginia and advocates with national organizations. I attended briefings, and organized a briefing for legislation to create an Office of Rural Education Policy. I attended committee meetings and smaller meetings with staff from other Senate offices who are working on common issues. I participate in weekly staff meetings as well as weekly meetings with the other legislative assistants and the legislative director for our office.
While as a teacher I spend most of my time talking, as a fellow there was quite a bit more writing. I drafted legislation, letters to other Senate offices (Dear Colleague letters), floor statements, fact sheets, as well as letters to other government agencies. I regularly updated the Senator via written memos on issues of importance to him. Memos included summaries of pending legislation, background on a current issue, voting recommendations, or talking points.
But what were all of those meetings, briefings, memos, letters, legislation, fact sheets, etc. really about? What does a fellow really do? Each topic could become its own story, so I will use two examples: the IDeA program at NIH, and the Office of Rural Education Policy.
The National Science Foundation has EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) and the National Institutes of Health has IDeA (Institutional Development Awards.) Other federal agencies have similar programs that have as their goal the promotion of science research funding in states that have traditionally been underfunded relative to others. From his position on the Commerce, Science & Technology committee, Senator Rockefeller has long advocated for EPSCoR and similar programs.
NIH was planning a new center to promote translational science, which would require some reorganization of other programs. Through organizations that support IDeA as well as contact from West Virginia researchers, there was concern the reorganization could harm IDeA. I worked with staff at NIH to learn more about plans, and eventually Senator Rockefeller led a letter to Director Collins expressing his concern about draft plans that had been announced. As drafter of the letter, I worked with staff in other Senate offices, and Senator Rockefeller was joined on the letter by a bipartisan group of 15 additional Senators. Shortly thereafter, NIH announced a revised reorganization plan that addressed the concerns, and they are continuing to move forward with these revised plans. I’m confident the IDeA program will continue to succeed, and I’m glad I was able to work on the issue. While it didn’t involve legislation, it did require a good deal of background research, memos, contact with other Senate offices, and communication with federal agencies, which is why I chose it as an example.
While my second example does involve legislation, I should emphasize the legislation is only introduced. West Virginia is a rural state and Senator Rockefeller has long supported education, especially STEM education and any innovative programs such as Partnership for 21st Century Skills. When he learned a New York City school with no rural connections earned competitive preference points for “rural” in a competition administered by the Department of Education, he knew the Department needed to do a better job. I worked with staff in Senator Baucus’s (D-MT) office to draft legislation to create an Office of Rural Education Policy (OREP) which has been introduced. The bill originally had eight additional co-sponsors and has gained eight more since it was introduced. Preparing the bill and gathering support requires many meetings with staff in other offices, as well as with supporting organizations. The legislation is based on the already successful Office of Rural Health Policy, so we also reached out to staff there and developed background on its history. Staff at the Department of Education also provided technical assistance. We also organized a briefing with three panelists who discussed the need for OREP and the success of ORHP. It was attended by over 50 people, and it felt good to organize a successful briefing, having attended so many briefings organized by others in my time here.
The OREP legislation now has 18 Senate sponsors, the endorsement of over 25 national organizations, and is receiving good attention. While it may not become law, or at least not for a long time, the attention the legislation has already drawn to the needs of education in rural America is an important success. Fortunately, I’m confident staff in Senator Rockefeller’s office and in other offices will continue to bring attention to it.
I suspect every year in Washington, DC, is an interesting year, but this year seemed especially so. Shortly after my arrival, the elections of 2010 changed the landscape and even the majority in the House of Representatives. The “lame duck” session that followed has been hailed as one of the three most productive in history – not at all lame! It included the reauthorization for America COMPETES. Of course, several continuing resolutions were necessary to avoid government shutdown during the spring, and lifting the debt limit in order to avoid the risk of default went to the last minute in August. These were interesting times, indeed, and I’m thankful for the experience provided by the ACS Congressional fellowship.