Putting Science Skills to Work in Government Relations

After completing their time in Washington DC, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows are usually well qualified to advocate on behalf of universities and federal research facilities. In fact, those with STEM backgrounds may even have an edge.

Anna Quider

That’s because while most federal government relations staff have experience working on Capitol Hill (or simply, the Hill), few have a science background, said astronomer Anna Quider, 2011-12 Legislative Branch Fellow sponsored by the American Physical Society (APS) and 2012-14 Executive Branch Fellow at Department of State. She is now director of federal relations for Northern Illinois University.

“I understand what it’s like to be a researcher competing for grants. It helps me better know how to relate” to what researchers need to know and what their priorities are, she said. She can also help researchers improve their interactions with federal grantors and can sometimes suggest new sources of funding.

Benn Tannenbaum, a physicist and 2002-03 Legislative Branch Fellow sponsored by APS, is part of a government relations team for Sandia National Laboratories, where workers do research on nuclear weapons, nuclear waste disposal and nonproliferation. He leads the labs’ Washington office, and is the only scientist doing government relations for a Department of Energy laboratory, he said, despite the benefits of having a science background for his work.

Benn Tannenbaum

“The scientists and engineers at my lab know I speak their language and often turn to me to help them explain their work,” Tannenbaum said. “Being a scientist is also pretty core to who I am and how I think. That impacts how I address the communications challenges we face, and complements the skills of my colleagues.”

Government relations professionals keep track of federal legislation and appropriations that will affect their institutions; for public universities, they track similar actions at the state level. They must have a good understanding of the budget and appropriations process, and form good relationships with the legislative staff for their districts and relevant committees. Setting up meetings with faculty members and facilitating (Capitol) Hill visits helps legislators understand the importance of federal research spending. Most are not registered lobbyists, meaning the majority of their visits with legislators must be spent educating rather than making a specific request.

Consequently, government relations work requires having good advocacy, listening and communication skills, particularly writing. “We do a fair amount of translation between worlds, which means helping scientists talk to Congress and vice versa,” said Philip Lippel, assistant director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Washington Office and 2003-04 Executive Branch Fellow. “It really helps to have a broad skillset for this job, as it does for STPF fellowships.”

Lippel’s background includes work as a physics professor and leading research and development work for a small business before his STPF fellowship at the National Science Foundation. Since Lippel didn’t have a legislative branch fellowship, he says he learned more about the legislative branch since coming to MIT.

“I think most people who come into these jobs will have a fair amount of experience in one branch of government or the other. So one recommendation is to do some homework and find out about the ones you don’t know,” Lippel said.

Quider and Lippel both said the diversity of topics they must be conversant about is part of the job’s appeal. For instance, they recently had to quickly become more familiar with immigration policy and find ways to help international faculty and students who were affected by the new administration’s travel ban.

“If you aren’t having to get up to speed on something routinely, then you aren’t staying on top of your portfolio,” Quider said.