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AAAS Fellowships Open New Worlds to Scientists, Engineers
Patrick Mendis taught public policy and US foreign relations at the University of Maryland to military personnel for the US Defense Department, but until this year, his knowledge came mostly from his own research and information gleaned from the experiences of others.
After a year as a AAAS Diplomacy Fellow in the US Department of State, during which he drafted a handbook for US diplomats that guides them in negotiating science and technology agreements, Mendis says he has gained insight that no book could have provided.
"It was a real eye-opener," says the economist, who has chosen to stay on at the State Department for another year. "This experience enhanced my learning and gave me an inside perspective on what I had taught."
August traditionally marks the end of the year for the annual AAAS science and technology policy fellowships, some of which can be renewed for a second year. In September another wave of more than 90 scientists and engineers will take up jobs on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies throughout Washington, bringing with them expertise in science and technology that is valuable to policy makers. At the same time, the fellows learn how science is used in government decision making and receive a grounding in science policy that may eventually take some of them into positions of great influence, as it has their colleagues in the past.
Claudia Sturges, director of the AAAS fellowship programs, recalls that several years ago, three of the associate directors of the White House's Office of Science and Technology were former fellows. One of the three, Kerri-Ann Jones, who has her doctorate in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, had been a fellow at the US Agency for International Development 16 years ago.
"That experience introduced me to the world of science outside the laboratory," says Jones, who now directs a program to improve Maine's research infrastructure under the University of Maine system and the Maine Science and Technology Foundation. "The fellowship was a platform for everything I've gone on to do."
In 1973, the Congressional Fellowship Program started with seven Fellows sponsored by AAAS and three other national scientific and engineering societies. Then, as now, AAAS provided an orientation and yearlong program of seminars, for all the Fellows. Currently there are about 30 participating societies, with AAAS sponsoring two Fellows and 30 other societies each sponsoring one or more Congressional Fellows. In addition, AAAS has established eight other programs in federal agencies, which provide science policy learning experiences for another 50-plus scientists and engineers. The AAAS programs place Fellows in a dozen executive branch agencies, including the departments of state, justice, defense, and agriculture.
"We now have about 1,300 former fellows," says Sturges. "The word-of-mouth sharing of their experiences is our best method of recruiting new Fellows."
Eric Clemons, a 33-year-old anthropologist, heard about the fellowship programs from an alumna he called after receiving an email message from her that had been forwarded to him by a friend.
"The former fellow had a PhD in political science, and she told me I should apply for a AAAS fellowship, so I did," says Clemons, who speaks Japanese and has lived and worked in Japan.
Now a AAAS Diplomacy Fellow at the US Agency for International Development, Clemons is applying his knowledge of Japanese culture to USAID's efforts to negotiate with Japan over coordination of the two nations' foreign assistance programs.
Asked what he thinks he's accomplished in his first year at USAID's Bureau for Asia and the Near East, Clemons says he thinks he may not have had much impact yet, but he hopes by renewing for a second year, he may be able to make more of a difference. "The major thing I've gotten from the program is that it's allowed me to move here and to become involved in policy," says Clemons. "It's a field that covers everything I wanted to do and I wanted to know."
-- Coimbra Sirica