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35th Anniversary Event Celebrates Deep Influence of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows
Kiki Jenkins, a member of the 35th class of AAAS Fellows, assigned to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Photos courtesy of Jeff Mason
When the first class of AAAS Science & Engineering Policy Fellows arrived on Capitol Hill in 1973, members of Congress and their staffs were not exactly sure how the group of seven young scientists would fit into the work of the legislative branch of government.
"The people looked at us and said, 'Well, I guess we can use you to help in offices,' meaning the mail and answering the phones," recalls Michael Telson, a member of that first class. "It was really a meeting of two different cultures."
On 7 January, more than 600 people, including members of Congress, high-ranking government officials and about 500 current and former Fellows gathered in the Rayburn House Office Building Café to celebrate the 35th year of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program that evolved from that modest and uncertain beginning.
Michael Telson, senior advisor to the University of California and a member of the first class of Congressional Fellows (1973-74).
Telson, now a senior advisor to the University of California after a long career in government, said that before that first year was over, congressional lawmakers and their staffs were avidly seeking help from the Science & Engineering Fellows for guidance in the complex scientific issues challenging the government.
In the three-and-a-half decades of the program—now known as the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships—a total of 2146 Fellows have worked in the halls of Congress and in the offices of 20 executive branch agencies and departments. Nearly 80 scientific and engineering societies and organizations have sponsored Fellows over the program's history.
The Fellowship initiative was launched as a collaboration of four scientific and engineering societies—the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, USA. AAAS manages the program.
U.S. Rep Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) and Dahlia Sokolov, staff director of the House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education and a former AAAS/American Institute of Physics Congressional Fellow (2004-05).
U.S. Representative Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Michigan) said in interview at the anniversary celebration that the impact of the S&T Policy Fellows Program has been dramatic and successful.
"Their work is perhaps not essential, but very close to it," said Ehlers. "The program is certainly important and irreplaceable because it is good for the institution and good for the participants."
Ehlers, the first trained research physicist elected to Congress, said the academic training of most members of Congress is not in science; therefore, he said, the S&T Policy Fellows perform an important role in helping the lawmakers gain an understanding of technical issues that affect policies and laws.
In the 1990s, Ehlers, then the only scientist in Congress, was asked by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to write a new science policy statement for the country. The previous such document, he said, had been produced in 1935.
"I had an AAAS-sponsored Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow on my staff and she was my mainstay in working on it," said Ehlers. "Together we produced the first science policy statement for the Federal government in 50 years."
Ehlers said an important contribution of the AAAS Fellowship program is that it encourages scientists to seek public service. He said he was the first research physicist elected to Congress, but the legislative body now has three physics Ph.D.s and one with a bachelor's degree in physics.
"I think you will find in the next 10 years that there will be more scientists elected to Congress because they were AAAS Fellows," said Ehlers.
One former S&T Policy Fellow is already seated in Congress.
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, (D-N.J.), former Congressional Fellow (1982-83, sponsored by the American Physical Society).
U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), who holds a Ph.D. in physics, was a Fellow in 1982-83, sponsored by the American Physics Society.
In remarks at the 35th anniversary celebration, Holt said that the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships "has been one of the most important programs in the United States of America.
"The program has accomplished what it set out to do, which is to bring scientific expertise to the agencies and to build political savvy in the scientific community."
Holt said at a recent Princeton University round table which he hosted with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) the panel of scientists generally agreed that "science will be the foundation for support and progress in our economy and for our quality of life in the United States."
Science and research and development, he said, can "have a great and immediate economic impact."
Holt said: "Science ... is not a luxury to be engaged in only in times of prosperity, but may be especially important in difficult times."
He said there is a need "to restore a fact-friendly environment in government" and that great strides in that direction have been taken in Congress. But Holt said there still is a need for more scientists to work on Congressional staffs, "especially among members and committees that don't think of themselves as science-oriented," such as the judiciary, intelligence, and foreign affairs committees.
AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner and U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), the most recent physicist elected to Congress.
Alan I. Leshner, CEO of the AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science, said at the anniversary celebration that the AAAS Fellows "have made their mark in (Washington) and continue to provide leadership at the intersection of science and policy. We are exceedingly proud of their accomplishments."
Cynthia Robinson, director of the S&T Policy Fellowships at AAAS, said the current class of 163 Fellows is the largest ever.
"Since our beginning, Fellows have represented a spectrum of fields in the sciences and engineering," said Robinson. The current class follows that tradition "covering the range of behavioral and social sciences, biological and physical sciences, computational and geosciences, and engineering disciplines as well as a diversity of career stages, sectors, geographic area and cultural backgrounds," she said.
Cynthia Robinson, director of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, addressing the anniversary reception.
Robinson said the goal of the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships has been a "mutual benefit" for the Fellows and for the government.
"Host offices gain scientific and technical expertise and analytical capabilities to inform policy, as well as talented individuals with energy, drive and fresh perspective," she said. "Fellows gain the opportunity to learn first-hand how policy is deliberated, developed, regulated, evaluated and to understand how science may be applied in the policy realm to make a difference at local, national and international levels."
A number of government agency officials attended the anniversary celebration and had high praise for the impact of the AAAS Fellows.
Chris Zarba, deputy director of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) National Center for Environmental Research, said his agency has hosted more than 260 S&T Policy Fellows since 1981. The EPA and the State Department were the first executive branch organizations to host S&T Policy Fellows.
"The fellowship program is a pipeline for incredibly talented scientists from a wide variety of fields to join the agency and help us with some of our most challenging environmental problems," said Zarba. "It would be difficult to find a program that compares with this."
Zarba said 25 scientists who worked at the EPA as AAAS Fellows are now employed by the agency.
Jay M. Cohen, undersecretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security, said the AAAS Fellows "are extremely important" to his department.
"They are our future," he said. "At an early stage in their careers they are able to understand the confluence of science, technology and policy making that will then influence lawmakers, decision-makers and policy-makers. It is a great program."
16 January 2009