New AAAS S&T Policy Fellows Use Science Insight For "Public Good"
R. Douglas Meckes
The newest class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows, a group of highly qualified scientists and engineers eager to apply their skills to the benefit of society, reported for duty on 7 September.
The class of 130, the second largest in the 32-year history of the popular program, will gain policy experience in congressional offices and nearly a dozen federal agencies during their year as Fellows.
"It's a wonderful way to bring the power of science into policy-making in this country," said Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS, as he welcomed the Fellows to the start of nine days of orientation meetings. He noted that the 130 Fellows were selected from more than 550 applicants.
The Fellows program, which began with just seven members in 1974, is meant to nurture links between scientific professionals and federal decision-makers. The Fellows learn to use their problem-solving abilities on challenges often far removed from the laboratory, academic, industry or non-profit setting from which they have come to Washington D.C. In turn, the sponsoring agencies and offices benefit from scientists and engineers who can provide solid facts and new perspectives on issues.
The program instills "a sense of public service, of civic idealism" in the Ph.D-level scientists who participate, said Stephen Nelson, the associate director of Science and Policy at AAAS. He urged the Fellows to resist becoming "prematurely cynical" as they delve more deeply into the political culture of Washington.
AAAS runs the fellowship program in partnership with more than a dozen federal agencies, centers and institutes, with congressional offices and committees and with more than 30 professional scientific societies. The program has produced a network of more than 1,700 former Fellows, many of them working in leadership and policy-making positions in Washington and elsewhere. The alumni include U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.).
In interviews and in their on-stage introductions during the opening orientation session, the new Fellows made clear the unusual diversity of interests and talents in the new class.
Travis Taylor, who will work at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in the Department of Defense, spent the past year working as a post-doc at Harvard University on development and testing of a vaccine for the West Nile virus. In his new assignment, he said in an interview, he will be working on issues related to biodefense and ongoing efforts by the United States to help bioweapons researchers from the former Soviet Union to find civilian research opportunities.
"I've always had an interest in biodefense," Taylor said. During his placement interviews at DTRA, he said, he was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of officials eager to use his expertise in virology. Taylor has been told he will be doing lots of traveling, with trips already planned for St. Petersburg, Russia, and the nations of Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Nancy Holt, who received her doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in December, is a Diplomacy Fellow who will be working in the Office of Global Change at the U.S. State Department. A specialist on laser spectroscopy, Holt will be working on climate change policy. It's a hot topic with many political overtones-and that is one reason she expressed an interest in it.
"I thought it was a good time" to be joining the State Department office that deals with climate change issues, she said. Does she expect to pursue a career in public policy? "I like to write, communicate and interact with people," Holt said. "But you don't know that you like something until you do it. I figure in two or three months it will be pretty obvious to me."
Jim Withee, who received his Ph.D from Stanford University in biochemistry and genetics, will be working as a Risk Policy Fellow at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He will be using risk assessment methods to help inform decision making on food safety issues. "It's not something I imagined doing two years ago or even two months ago," Withee said. But, like other Fellows, he said he is eager for the Washington experience and the chance to try something new.
Some Fellows have come to Washington for a mid-career change of pace. Stephanie Adams, assistant dean for research in the college of engineering at the University of Nebraska, is on sabbatical and will be assigned to the National Science Foundation. An honors graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, an historically black institution, Adams holds a doctorate in engineering from Texas A&M. She received an award from NSF in 2003 to support her efforts to improve teaching methods in the engineering classroom.
R. Douglas Meckes, who described himself to his classmates as "a simple country vet for 30 years," is a Congressional Fellow. In addition to his career as a veterinarian, he also has served as an elected official in the town of Apex, N.C. Asked to mention something not on his résumé, Meckes told of receiving a "Dear John" letter from his girlfriend in 1967 while he was in military boot camp.
"Twenty-five years later I walked into her apartment, swept her off her feet and nine months later we were married, and remain happily married to this day," Meckes said. The story, he told his classmates, "keeps me always mindful of the thought that great love and great achievement require great effort."
9 September 2005