The pathways through which science informs policy in the United States are often underdeveloped, especially at the state level. Federal agencies, national scientific advisory bodies, and professional societies provide opportunities for scientists to interact with federal legislators, but historically, scientists have had fewer chances to collaborate with state policymakers. Considering that laws influencing natural resources, environmental health, and other concerns to which science is highly relevant aren’t crafted at just the federal level, the shortage of opportunities for state-level science-policy collaboration may result in rules and regulations not guided by the best available information.

Some organizations and states are working to address this need. In Kansas, the state geological survey organizes an annual field conference that brings scientists, legislators, and public officials together to network, learn, and collaborate in a relaxed, unbiased environment. The format offers an opportunity for these parties to communicate with each other and, ultimately, to share the benefits of their collaborations with the public. In this way, legislators are better equipped to make policy decisions that sustainably support their communities.

As we relay below, direct feedback from participants during and after the June 2023 Field Conference sheds light on the event’s value not only in Kansas but also as a model that could potentially be adapted to similar effect elsewhere.

A Firsthand Tour, with In-Person Expertise

The annual Kansas Field Conference was initiated in 1995 to provide a means of communicating directly with policymakers about natural resource issues in the state.

Scientists Bob Sawin and Rex Buchanan of the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) initiated the annual Kansas Field Conference in 1995 to provide a means of communicating directly with policymakers about natural resource issues in the state. During these conferences, state legislators, public officials, and leaders of industry are invited on a 3-day field trip to visit sites where natural resources are extracted, refined, or used. At each stop, scientists and local operators discuss the site’s significance related to local resources and geologic history. The overall goal of the conference is to present participants with nonpartisan, firsthand information about natural resources in Kansas.

Blair Schneider, associate researcher and scientific outreach manager for KGS, has been the organizational architect of the Field Conference since 2019. She explained that her developmental process starts with a vision board; she designs the conference by determining where in Kansas it should occur, what resource issues are most pressing in that region, what KGS’s role is with respect to those issues, and who in the area state legislators and agencies would benefit the most from meeting and networking with. “From there, I do my research and create a theme,” Schneider said. “This theme works to ‘connect the dots’ from stop to stop each year and tell a more complete story about all natural resources like water, energy, and more.”

The 2023 conference centered around the theme of adaptation with respect to water resources in southwestern Kansas. Nearly 50 participants, along with KGS staff, visited a prairie preserve, a dried bank of the Arkansas River, local playas (shallow depressions in the earth that intermittently fill with water), a cattle feed yard, a water treatment facility, and a research index well. At each location, scientists and industry professionals spoke about relevant water-related concerns such as availability, quality, and usage.

Two people stand in grass near a fence, one speaking and gesturing to the dry riverbed behind him, as others in the foreground listen.
KGS assistant scientist Sam Zipper (left) and Earl Lewis, chief engineer of the Kansas Department of Agriculture (right), describe the history of the Arkansas River at a site near Dodge City where the riverbed was dry. Credit: Andy Connolly

Another focus of the recent conference was the economic impact of local industries that consume the state’s limited water resources. Conference participants visited a soon-to-open cheese factory where operators are seeking to implement sustainable solutions to achieve carbon neutrality but are likely to face challenges with water conservation. Presenters at the stop included several members of the factory’s management, who talked about the construction of the facility, the products it will manufacture, and community effects.

After the presentations at each stop, participants had an opportunity to converse with the speakers and each other. Often, they asked unprompted questions, wanting to know how new economic developments could affect water issues in the region. For example, at the new cheese factory, an attendee asked a representative from the Kansas Water Office how water would be sustainably managed in the factory despite the facility requiring a significant increase in the local dairy cow population (one cow consumes 110–190 liters of water every day). This sort of dialogue, which brings practitioners of both science and policy into conversation on common ground, is the core function of the conference.

Participants are also given a guidebook with a detailed itinerary, attendee contacts, and supplementary information to help contextualize their understanding of the region and its resources. The guidebook includes concise articles that offer geological and anthropological background specific to each stop—without straying into jargon or overly technical detail—as well as its connection to the conference theme. As guidebook editor Julie Tollefson pointed out, the book is meant to be a resource not only during the trip but also long after it ends. The hope is that participants will return to it when they need to make informed decisions about related issues in the context of their legislative or policy work.

Conversational Opportunities and Enhanced Learning

Participants agreed that their top takeaway was the value of the conversations the conference enabled.

The success of the communication afforded by the Field Conference is clear to KGS, but we were interested in gathering firsthand feedback from participants to determine whether their perceptions echoed our own. So we asked them what, in their view, the conference accomplishes. To our excitement, interviewed participants agreed that their top takeaway was the value of the conversations the conference enabled. In postconference surveys, a vast majority responded that they were highly satisfied with the opportunities they had to network with other attendees.

Brad Loveless, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, remarked that the conference offers much more than listening to presentations and asking questions. “The other things that happen on the bus, between stops, and the sidebar conversations are very valuable, too, because they promote that understanding, that relationship, and hopefully set the stage for future conversations,” said Loveless. When these future conversations happen, “people know who you are and that you’re approachable, and so hopefully it fosters better collaboration between agencies, and between agencies and legislature.”

Many participants reported that the casual atmosphere of the conference created a relaxed learning environment and encouraged an ease of interaction among individuals that is harder to come by in more formal meeting spaces.

“We tend to shed our political differences when we’re out here together. I’ve seen a lot more collegiality on this trip than I think you see when you’re in Topeka during a [legislative] session,” said Nick Levendofsky, executive director of the Kansas Farmers Union. He expressed an appreciation of the diversity in professional backgrounds represented among conference attendees. “With every bus stop, you see people moving seats,” Levendofsky observed. “You see an urban legislator sitting next to a rural legislator…and a Republican sitting next to a Democrat.”

“Humans are often tactile and visual and audio learners, and they learn best [about a subject] when they’re seeing it, they’re touching it, they’re hearing it, and they’re smelling it.”

Meeting and networking in the field have other upsides as well. “All these people that are here bring resources and ideas, and we’re able to take those and put them together, which you can’t do on a Zoom call or over email. You have to get together in person,” said Shannon Kenyon, district manager for Groundwater Management District (GMD) 4, one of five such districts in the state. “I am recharged,” she said of the experience, grinning, and adding that she was looking forward to sharing her excitement with colleagues at an upcoming meeting.

Not only does the atmosphere promote conversation and cross-pollination of ideas, but being physically present at the locations discussed may also have educative benefits for participants.

“Humans are often tactile and visual and audio learners, and they learn best [about a subject] when they’re seeing it, they’re touching it, they’re hearing it, and they’re smelling it,” said KGS director Jay Kalbas. “The impressions you get from being on site are far different and far better than what you’re going to get from seeing a PowerPoint presentation.” This perspective aligns with many reports from conference participants, who expressed that it was often eye-opening to visit field sites in person.

During a stop at a dried-up portion of the Arkansas River near Dodge City, where participants heard about the river’s history, Kansas State Senator Chase Blasi remarked that he was “shocked to see that it’s not flowing this far west and to hear that it hasn’t had a true flow for over 20 years.” Blasi, whose district lies northwest of Wichita and is segmented by a flowing portion of the Arkansas, added, “It’s a reminder to me that the state has got to take conservation seriously.”

Pros for the People

We also asked participants how they felt their attendance at the conference benefited the public. Katie Durham, district manager of GMD 1, said, “It’s about knowing what resources are available, specifically for my producers, and making sure that I can get those resources on field and in their hands.”

In her leadership role, Durham is responsible for helping GMD 1 develop programs and policies that support the community economy and prioritize the conservation of groundwater. KGS has a lot of technical abilities, such as its well-monitoring resources, and it is important to make sure that farmers, factories, and other producers know what tools and assistance they can access, Durham said. “A lot of state agencies are really apt to work with producers and come up with solutions that are viable and economically sound.”

Aside from benefiting from the economic management of resources, participants stated that their experiences at the conference would help them inform the broader community about natural resource issues in the state. Ben Postlethwait and Justin Cobb, the Kansas state director and government relations manager for The Nature Conservancy, respectively, said that collaborations and partnerships formed through the conference will help all parties find common ground on issues such as water conservation.

“In the world of conservation, there’s a lot of misunderstanding, oftentimes, on how we solve problems,” said Postlethwait, who emphasized that misinformation disseminated through the public can cripple the conservation efforts of state agencies and independent organizations. “Conferences like this one help us educate the public efficiently” by getting different state-level officials on the same page and helping them share consistent, accurate messages.

They also help these officials “make better policy decisions,” added Cobb.

Conference participants reported that they felt better prepared to converse with peers about resource management issues thanks to insights they gained from the Field Conference, a distinct benefit when it comes to implementing tangible science policy.

State Senator Carolyn McGinn noted that demonstrations during the tour in June, such as on the function and status of the index well, provide helpful agricultural and hydrological context for those that have not had direct field experience.

Pair of images showing a woman smiling and lowering a measuring tape down a well.
Kansas State Representative Lindsay Vaughn tries her hand at lowering a measuring tape down the index well. Credit: Andy Connolly

“I think their understanding is really going to help when they go back to either committees or their communities,” said McGinn. “They’ll be able to explain [the context] to other people and why it’s important.”

Further, information gathered from conference presentations and conversations empowers public officials to ask about and evaluate existing natural resource practices in their respective districts and to consider whether local practices can be adapted or improved. They can also gauge the effectiveness of management strategies used around the state and start conversations about how those strategies might be implemented elsewhere.

A Model for Successful Science-Policy Communication

KGS’s Field Conference format offers several clear benefits. It fosters an open, collaborative learning environment to encourage science conversation among a variety of participants from different sectors. It presents an opportunity for scientists and state leaders to get in touch with the Earth science that influences their everyday life, an experience they can share to spark inspiration in the next generation of researchers and policymakers. It also equips public officials with knowledge to make more informed science policy decisions to help their communities. In addition, the accessibly written conference guidebook serves as a lasting reference to inform people about regional geology and natural resources. In these ways, the conference offers a template for a practical approach to science communication—one that other regions, states, or municipalities could adapt to support science-informed policy and education in their own communities.

Environmental change does not occur in a vacuum; no one is exempt from its effects. In our rapidly evolving world, it is more important than ever to manage natural resources and solve ecological problems as a unified front of scientific, political, and industrial thinkers. As KGS continues to offer and update its annual Field Conference in response to participant feedback and new research, we are confident that the event will continue to provide insight into how science-policy communication pathways can be improved not only in Kansas, but in the greater global community as well.

Author Information

Sunday Siomades (, Blair Schneider, and Andy Connolly, Kansas Geological Survey, Lawrence

Citation: Siomades, S., B. Schneider, and A. Connolly (2023), Finding common ground in the field to inform science policy, Eos, 104, Published on 28 November 2023.
Text © 2023. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.

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