Four Decades On, Fellows Make Global Impact on Science Policy

The year was 1973, and molecular biologist Jessica Tuchman was preparing to go to work as a congressional staffer, one of seven researchers in the inaugural class of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows. The timing was auspicious: Energy, nuclear power, and the environment had emerged as urgent issues, and while Congress had just opened its Office of Technology Assessment, scientific expertise remained in profoundly short supply on Capitol Hill.

Life-Changing Experience. Jessica Tuchman Mathews is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 1973, she was in the small first class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows.
[Images by: left: Carla Schaffer; right: AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships]

“There was a need, and there was a demand,” she recalls. “This was a moment when Congress really was wrestling with, ‘How do we get more advice, more help (on science-related issues)?’ It was a wonderful, very fertile moment for us.”

Today Jessica Tuchman Mathews is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and her accomplishments during the past four decades reflect the growing impact of the AAAS Fellowships. A total of 2616 scientists and engineers have served as Fellows—including a record 279 in this fall’s 40th class—and in a series of interviews, alumni described how the experience has helped to transform both U.S. science policy and their own careers.

After serving one or two years in non-partisan congressional and executive branch positions, Fellows have gone on to work “in non-profits, academic institutions, industry, and of course government,” said program Director Cynthia Robinson. “All of those individuals have taken the experience they acquired... in Washington, D.C., and are now applying it in the work they’re doing across those sectors—at national, local, and even international levels of policy.”

The fourth class, in 1976, had grown to 13 Fellows, including physicist E. William Colglazier. He would go on to become executive officer of the National Academy of Sciences and now S&T adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State. “It’s a stroke of genius that this program was created,” he said.

How to gauge the Fellowships’ impact? Dating back to the earliest classes, alumni can point to specific influence on debates or legislation—on regulations for intellectual property and biotechnology in the 1980s or, more recently, shaping federal policy for adaptation to climate change, engaging with former Iraqi weapons scientists, and responding to natural disasters in Indonesia and Haiti.

But numbers, too, tell an important part of the story. For example, in 2000, only a few Fellows were assigned to the U.S. State Department. By early 2012, there were 41, and 43 more at the USAID; over 120 former Fellows were employed at State and USAID. Overall, more than 50% continue in government service after their Fellowships end. And the original four science and engineering societies that helped sponsor Fellows have grown to 32.

In an era when science is a key component of so many national and international issues, the Fellowships have “had a very permeating, dramatic effect” on policymaking, said 1985 Diplomacy Fellow Kerri-Ann Jones, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. “There’s this base of scientific wisdom, knowledge, and experience now, throughout the government, that wasn’t there before.”

1984 Fellow Arati Prabhakar, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), offered a related view. “DARPA has had a series of highly successful program managers and executives, some of whom, if you trace the history all the way back, first came to Washington as Congressional Fellows,” she said. “I don’t think that’s an accident.”

The transformative influence of the Fellows works at an individual level, too. Wyoming State Senator Chris Rothfuss, a Diplomacy Fellow from 2003-2005, said his experience in Washington is prime subject matter in the classes he teaches in nanotechnology and international relations at the University of Wyoming. Ellen Bergfeld is CEO of the Alliance of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Societies and related U.S. agricultural organizations—and she credits the experience and contacts derived from her 1996 Congressional Fellowship.

Physicist and U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), a 1982 Fellow, put it simply: “It was really life-changing... I wouldn’t be in Congress now if it hadn’t been for the Fellows program.”

But alumni emphasize that benefits flow the other way, too. Just as the Fellowships impart scientific expertise to the policy process, they also enrich the research enterprise “by bringing a political savvy back to the professions,” Holt said. “And that’s an unbeatable combination.”

The AAAS Science and Technology Fellowships are planning a series of special events beginning in early 2013, including a speaker series, online workshops, an art exhibit, and a 40th anniversary commemoration.