AAAS S&T Policy Fellows Hope to Learn How to Tackle Big Problems Through Policy

Members of the 41st class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows at their September 2013 orientation event. [AAAS]

The 275 scientists and engineers who make up the 41st class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows have diverse backgrounds and assignments, but one common interest links them. "I always wanted to know how I could make the biggest difference," said Kristen Honey, a 2013-14 Fellow with a background in environmental science and fisheries said.

Honey, who has a Ph.D. in environment and resources, said that her previous work in protecting marine ecosystems and fisheries was important but wasn't getting to the root of the problems. "Science is not where the decisions are made — it informs the decisions, but policymakers are the ones who make them," she said.

Fellow Mia Lowden, who has a Ph.D. in Genetics and Molecular Biology, echoed that sentiment. "I want to learn more about policy so I can have an impact on heart disease and type 2 diabetes," she said. "I think that policy work gives me the best chance to have a broad impact on the largest number of people."

The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships provide the opportunity for scientists and engineers to work either alongside Congressional staff or in 15 federal agencies including the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of State, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. The fellowships are funded by the participating agencies and more than 30 scientific and engineering societies.

The Fellows' hosts value their knowledge of research and science, as evidenced by the agencies' requests to take on additional Fellows each year, said S&T Policy Fellowships Director Cynthia Robinson. "The fact that the program continues to grow, and that there's interest on both sides of the aisle [in Congress] in hosting Fellows, shows that while our political parties may have different interests, science is viewed among the factors that can inform good policy."

Kristen Honey [Courtesy Honey]

Mia Lowden [Courtesy Lowden]

Nathaniel Tablante [Courtesy Tablante]

This year, in addition to their usual orientation to Washington, D.C., the Fellows are getting an early lesson in politics. The government shutdown has left many of them unable to report for their assignments, as their agencies are entering a second week of closures while they wait for Congress to approve a new budget.

Whether the Fellows eventually return to research and science positions, or go on to hold elected positions or leadership roles in the federal government, their experience of working in Congress or for a federal agency has lasting benefits, Robinson said. "Very few people know what goes on in the policy world, and few scientists or engineers have the opportunity to see policy making at the federal level."

That opportunity is what attracted Lowden. She hopes her fellowship at the National Institutes of Health's Office of Global Health will help her decide if her future path lies in working at a federal agency, and whether that setting would help her have the impact she'd like to in combating heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

"I think we need to reshape our environments to make it easier to adopt healthy lifestyles," Lowden said. Heart disease is the nation's largest killer, she said, and type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity and sedentary lifestyles, is rapidly increasing. Legislators can help reduce these diseases, she said. "When I lived in North Carolina, I noticed there were a lot of neighborhoods without sidewalks." Sidewalks can make it easier for children and adults to walk to school and work, or for exercise, she said, and are something that local, state or federal policies could work to create.

Lowden's passion stems from of her early interest in nutrition and obesity. Growing up in California, she said there was an emphasis on healthy eating. "I began to look at the food labels on what I was eating, and that made me aware of portion sizes," she said. When she learned in graduate school how the legislation that made food labels mandatory came about, it sparked her interest in policy. "It doesn't force people to change their behavior, but it gives them the opportunity to modify their habits," Lowden said.

Nathaniel Tablante, a veterinarian and University of Maryland poultry extension specialist, became interested in the legislative process while he was president of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. After 24 years working in poultry health management, epidemiology and biosecurity, he has been selected to serve as a Congressional Fellow, sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association, in the office of Representative Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. (D-GA). Congressman Bishop was his ideal choice because of the congressman's active involvement in poultry-related issues, Tablante said.

Tablante tends to be optimistic and persistent, qualities that helped him as he emigrated from the Philippines to Canada and then the United States to follow educational and work opportunities. So while he sees the partisan atmosphere in Congress as a challenge, he doesn't get discouraged. "As long as policy makers are interested in science, there's hope."

For Kristen Honey, the current gridlock in Congress is due to a "lack of leadership and courage," and is motivation to someday enter politics herself and set a different example, she said. Her fellowship at the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in the Weatherization and Intergovernmental Program will give her policy experience that should help inform that choice.

Honey says if she does run for a political office, it would be in her home state of Maine. Despite its geographic size, the state "is really a small community," Honey said. "One person can really make a difference there."

Learn about several inspiring alumni of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows program.