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Full of Optimism and Idealism, a Record Class of AAAS S&T Policy Fellows Goes to Work in Washington, D.C.
Biochemist Todd Capson's introduction to science policy came in Panama where he was working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute as a specialist on the isolation of anti-tumor agents from marine organisms.
He knew the importance of preserving habitats where new anti-disease agents might be found, including Panama's Coiba National Park. In contacts with Panamanian officials, including a visit to the President's home, Capson provided scientific support for successful efforts to establish the park by law (it was previously established by a weaker executive decree) and have it included on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.
"By the seat of my pants, I learned the importance of diplomacy," Capson said, "and it piqued my interest in policy." Now, at age 53, he is one of 165 new AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows who will be spending a year working in executive and legislative branch offices in Washington. The program offers scientists and engineers an opportunity to learn how the policy process works while providing their host offices the benefit of their expertise.
Capson had heard about the Fellowships while doing post-doctoral work at the National Institutes of Health. But only after his experiences in Panama did he consider applying for a Fellowship as a vehicle for a possible career switch. Others in the 35th anniversary Fellows class are just starting out in science and are exploring policy work as an alternative to the research lab.
Elaine Ulrich, 30, just completed her Ph.D. in nanotechnology at the University of Arizona in early August. She grew up on a farm in northeastern Colorado and had little interest in math and science until she took a high-school physics class from a gifted teacher who discussed such down-to-earth examples of everyday physics as the momentum and energy transfer of a bowling ball rattling around in the backseat of a moving vehicle.
"That first physics class just totally drew me in," Ulrich said. "For the first time, I really felt challenged." She went on to study applied physics as an undergraduate at Wellesley College, including two summers of research on laser cooling and trapping of atoms at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. One of her mentors was William Phillips, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on laser cooling.
While doing graduate studies at the University of Arizona, Ulrich became involved in governance issues as president of the Graduate Student Council. She gained experience working with the university administration, state officials, and local organizations. She started considering career options beyond the research laboratory and learned about the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships during a conference on science and policy at the New School in Manhattan. Ulrich won an appointment as a Congressional Fellow, sponsored by the American Physical Society, a AAAS partner in the Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowships. She looks forward to developing the skills to tackle big projects.
"I'm such an optimist," Ulrich said. She is convinced that Americans can still take on big challenges--such as energy independence--and come up with solutions. "We can do whatever we need to do," Ulrich said. "This country has done it before."
All of the Fellows have interesting stories to tell about their careers in science and why they have decided to explore public service. Some come to the world of policy and politics perhaps more naturally than others. Sarah Carter, a granddaughter of former President Jimmy Carter, spent 2006 working as director of online communications for the unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in Nevada of her father, Jack Carter. She also served as an informal policy adviser for the campaign. Carter, who has a doctorate in neuroscience, will be working at the Environmental Protection Agency in the office of the science adviser.
Carter and the other Fellows are taking up their posts at a time of political transition and a renewed emphasis on the need for well-informed decision-making. "This election cycle has highlighted the important role of science and technology for U.S. competitiveness, economic strength and the well-being of the American public in addition to the health of the global environment," says Cynthia Robinson, director of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.
Funded by science and engineering societies and government agencies, the Fellows complete their year-long fellowship in congressional offices or federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"For 35 years, the S&T Policy Fellows have provided critical scientific expertise and analysis to policy makers and regulators," Robinson said. "The Fellows help policy makers address challenges and opportunities to produce scientifically-informed policies and programs for the benefit of U.S. citizens as well as people around the world."
The 2008-2009 cohort of 165 Fellows is the largest in the history of the program, which continues to grow as more and more government agencies seek additional scientific expertise. In fact, the demand for S&T experts far outweighs the number of qualified applicants the program receives.
"We just don't have enough of you to go around," Robinson told the Fellows on 3 September during one of the opening sessions of their two-week orientation session at AAAS and other venues around Washington. Robinson noted the diversity of the class, with more Fellows coming each year from industry and nonprofit organizations in addition to academic institutions and government entities. The age range for this year's class is 26 to 66. "It's not just an early-career pursuit," Robinson said.
Trish McDaniel, 49, is one of the Fellows who had worked most recently in an industry position and sees the program as an opportunity to explore mid-career choices. With a Ph.D. in materials science, she had worked at NASA's Langley Research Center on nanocomposites for low-earth orbit applications and then moved into industry as a technical manager. As a Fellow, she will be working for a Department of Defense counter-terrorism group on explosives detection. A self-described "military brat" who was born in Japan, McDaniel said she would like to remain in a government agency after her fellowship year.
Albert H. Teich, head of the AAAS Science and Policy Programs office, noted that the Fellows program is highly regarded around Washington, where alumni have provided expertise for numerous agencies while also helping to humanize the image of scientists. "AAAS loves the Fellows program," Teich told the new class.
For many of the new Fellows, the warm feelings are mutual. Matthew Gerdin, a 34-year-old neuroscientist who is a Diplomacy Fellow, said it was a leap of faith on his part to undertake a change of career after a decade doing basic research at the National Institutes of Health. "It was a risk on my part," Gerdin said. "I wanted to do it in a safe situation." He said he has been impressed by the support structure the Fellows program offers. "It's a very professional, well-run organization," he said. Gerdin will be working in the State Department's Office of Policy Coordination and Initiatives.
Zaira Nazario, a theoretical physicist who recently completed a post-doctoral appointment at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany, said she learned about the Fellowships from a Stanford University classmate who had become a Congressional Fellow. She had been thinking about moving out of academia and became "very curious" about the possibilities. Nazario will be working in the State Department's Office of Comparative Threat Reduction. Nazario said she can't predict yet whether she'll want to make science policy a career. She also has an interest in finance and application of mathematical methods to derivatives trading.
Based on past experience, the Fellows will follow paths as diverse as the backgrounds they bring to the program. Many return to academia where they teach and mentor a new generation of scientists to understand the policy context of research and the importance of communicating science to non-scientific stakeholders. Others transition into policy positions at the local, state, regional, federal and international levels, and some apply their new policy skills in the non-profit and private sectors.
During their two-week orientation session, the Fellows receive an intensive introduction to the Washington policy milieu by officials from Congress, the State Department, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other executive agencies as well as historians, journalists, lobbyists, policy analysts and AAAS staff specialists.
Stephen Nelson, associate director of Science & Policy Programs at AAAS, outlined some of the differences in worldview and culture among scientists and policy makers. "Each of these two communities has a set of practices and views that are internally consistent," Nelson said, although they often don't mix very well.
Scientists tend to be individualists who want to stick to data. They use language that is often impersonal and technical, approach problems with a critical, skeptical eye and are willing to disregard deadlines if an experiment or project takes more time. Policy makers often must act before there is certainty surrounding an issue, must learn to compromise when opposing interests clash, and must represent their constituency first and foremost.
Still, there are ways to become "bi-cultural," Nelson said, and Fellows must learn how to accommodate or adapt to the new culture they will enter in Washington policy circles. "Be succinct and clear," Nelson told them. In dealing with their new government colleagues, "speak to what they need to know." Just adding more scientific detail may not, of itself, be enough to win the argument, he said.
But a scientist's expertise and way of approaching problems can have an impact. Nelson said he has heard from many former Fellows who tell him "some of their proudest moments were preventing really dumb things from getting done."
Nelson also urged the Fellows to avoid a "premature cynicism" about Washington ways as they undertake their new assignments. "You'll see people who are trying to do what's right," Nelson said. "Politics can be an honorable practice."
19 September 2008