Not so long ago, Jim Head would put in a full day at the Raytheon Co. plant in Tucson, then go out to teach night classes in astronomy at the local community college. Much of his work at Raytheon was focused on civil space programs—space travel was a passion dating to his youth. But it seemed vitally important to work with young people, to share with them the mysteries and mission of space exploration and the thrill of science itself.
This year, on a sabbatical after 11 years at Raytheon, Head will take those passions in a new direction: As a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, he will be at the U.S. Department of State, where his brief will include a project related to lunar settlement and exploration.
Several years ago, at Raytheon, he worked with NASA to study how to go back to the moon and even push on to Mars. “That’s where I realized that there is a process by which a presidential directive and a congressional budget had to be turned into programs—things that actually happen,” Head explained in a recent interview. “That opened my eyes to another way to have my ideas contribute to what the nation does in space.”
Head is convinced that his work in coming months also will help him be a better envoy to the public, on space and other science issues. But in truth, he doesn’t know exactly where the assignment in the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs will lead, or what sort of impact he will have.
And that, as much as anything, may be what makes the AAAS Fellowship so exciting.
Increasingly, the most important challenges confronting the United States and the world—energy and climate, infectious diseases, security, food and clean water—have a science component. Head and 209 colleagues in the 38th Fellows class will bring their expertise in science and engineering to bear on the policy- and law-making in the Executive Branch and in congressional offices.
While their impact remains to be seen, the cumulative impact of the Fellowships is well-known on Capitol Hill and in departments and agencies that have a science-related focus. Since they were founded in 1973, the S&T Policy Fellowships have sent more than 2300 scientists and engineers to work for a year or two in Congress and nearly 20 executive branch agencies and departments. Scores have stayed on to build high-impact careers in government, while others have gone on to leadership positions in education, private enterprise, and non-governmental organizations.
“Our aim is to expand S&T leadership capacity by training policy-savvy scientists and engineers,” explained Fellowships Director Cynthia Robinson. “Our focus is not simply on a year or two of education and public service. While there are many immediate outputs, the AAAS Fellowships are long-term investments with payout across entire careers.”
This year, for the second consecutive year, the energy, environment, and agriculture program area has the largest contingent of Fellows. But this also is a year of special milestones, Robinson said.
“With so many scientists and engineers helping shape policy throughout the federal government today, it’s not easy to recall how scarce such individuals were 30 or 40 years ago,” said Al Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS. “The Fellowship has had an important and lasting influence on public policy in this country.”
Kerri-Ann Jones is a case in point. She had been a researcher in biophysics and biochemistry when she joined the program in 1985 as a AAAS Diplomacy Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Today, she’s the assistant secretary of state for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. [See her State Department biography.]
In a 13 September talk during the Fellows’ fall orientation session, Jones recalled being in their position—excited and uncertain, unfamiliar with the workings of Washington and her role there.
“You’ve landed in Washington and you have a lot to learn,” she mused. “It’s different—trust me, it’s different.” But she assured them that their expertise would be valued by policy leaders. And, she said, they had joined a growing network of former AAAS Fellows in government.
“They’re everywhere,” Jones said in an interview after her talk. “I’ve seen the program elevate the role of science and technology across the board…. It has become much more visible. It’s expanded the number of agencies it’s in, and it’s become a real presence in the policy landscape.”
Twenty-five years have passed since Jones started her S&T Policy Fellowship, but the experience of Fellows today seems similar in many ways. Whether they are just entering their professions or in mid-career, it’s a departure for most scientists and engineers. They want to add new dimensions to their experience, perhaps try out a new career path, cross-pollinate, even if the results may be uncertain.
Danielle Evers is not new to Washington—she has a Ph.D from Georgetown University in neuroscience, with much of her research focused on the neuroscience of learning. In her studies and work, she’s also explored science education, science research funding, and research ethics. Now she’s assigned to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, working with PCAST.
“I’ve seen the policy world from the outside,” Evers said in an interview. “In my first year of graduate school, I got involved in the policy-for-science side—how we’re funding science organizations and agencies, and what are science ethics, and regulations… I’m really excited to be on the inside and see how it’s actually used.”
Her background is diverse, and as she started in her new post, it wasn’t clear how her neuroscience experience would come into play. For some starting a new assignment, that might be a cause for concern, but not to Evers. She’s excited to take her background and interest in science policy to a place where scientists work at the highest level to help shape that policy.
“What my neuroscience background shows is an ability to bring together a broad field and, while I might not have mastery of the full field, I’ve been able to build a good understanding and master part of it. No matter what I end up doing with PCAST, that’s going to be the way to success.”
Robin Broughton started her fellowship at NIH—in the Office of Cancer Genomics within the National Cancer Institute—with a similar mindset. She’d received her Ph.D in microbiology and immunology from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and much of her research over the last six years has focused on HIV/AIDS. But her interests cover a broad span, from science education to health communication and global health access.
Before starting the S&T Policy Fellowship, she’d been at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, where she served as an assistant professor in the Department of
Microbiology and Immunology and science deputy for the Center for AIDS Health Disparities Research. While at Meharry, Broughton mentored four students and worked closely with two or three others.
While there, she saw the challenges faced by smaller schools—and the impact on students when faculty lack sufficient training in the area of mentorship. It became clear to her that the policy realm was a key place to address such education issues. But the NIH assignment has produced an intriguing turn: Her work will focus on the translation of genomics discoveries into new treatments, an area of study termed by many as personalized medicine. She is particularly interested in learning the specifics about related issues such as the ethics of genomics, as well as health disparities.
“With all the progress we’ve had, we have the science to begin going down the road to personalized medicine,” she said. “But I’m also interested to see what negatives there might be.”
That doesn’t preclude her from working on education someday, or even this year outside the office. “The future,” Broughton said, “is open.”
But the opportunity for novel experience and exploration comes with a flip-side: professional uncertainty. Fellows acknowledged that some colleagues had wondered about the wisdom of stepping away from research and fieldwork or going to work in government.
For Jim Head, the change felt natural. His continuing aspiration was to make a contribution to America’s future in space exploration; taking time out from Raytheon and taking a AAAS Fellowship at the Department of State gave him a different angle of approach. Many colleagues cheered his decision, recognizing the contributions he could make via public service and the knowledge he could bring back to Raytheon. Others weren’t so sure.
“One of the people who wrote one of my letters of recommendation for the fellowship took me to breakfast the week before I left,” Head recalled. “He stated that very directly: ‘I don’t know what the draw is for you. Knowing your personality, knowing your character traits, why would you would go off and immerse yourself in that particular world?’”
John Lamoreux tells a similar story. He’s an ecologist and conservation biologist; he has worked for the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund, and he’s one of the founders of the Alliance for Zero Extinction. In those positions, he spent a lot of time in the field. Now, as a AAAS S&T Policy Fellow, he’ll be found many days in an office at the U.S. Geological Survey.
“I had a friend who looked at me kind of strangely when I took this position,” Lamoreux recalled. “He said, ‘John, there’s two kinds of jobs in the world. There are those where you shower before work, and those where you shower after work. You’re changing—you’re now going to be a shower-before-work kind of guy.’”
And yet, for Lamoreux, Head, and other Fellows, this is a risk to embrace: Give up the known world, move out of your comfort zone, and the sacrifice might allow for broader, deeper impact and influence.
Head was asked whether he could expect to have influence as a Fellow new to Washington. He paused, then spoke slowly: “I intend to, but we’ll see what happens. To a large extent, I don’t know what I’m getting into. But I keep hearing from people that as a AAAS Fellow, you’ll have more influence than you realize.”
Lamoreux was optimistic, too, and similarly cautious about bold predictions. A decade ago, he’d worked at an NGO in Washington and it made a lasting impression. “I’d walk around town,” he said, “and the buildings, the monuments, the history—the landscape constantly reminded you that this is where the people’s business is done.”
Since then, he’s spent a lot of time doing science in the field, but the sense remains that on issues related to biodiversity and endangered species, policy is critical to the future.
“I know that I don’t know enough about policy,” Lamoreux said. “I don’t know where the levers are. I don’t know step one. But the S&T Policy Fellowship program is an excellent way to get into that.
“I hope this makes me more effective at understanding the key pressure points—where things happen and where things need to happen. And I hope it helps me to be a more effective communicator, so that I can get the science I care about across, whether it’s directly to the public or influencing policy in the Executive Branch or on Capitol Hill.”
But won’t he miss being outside, working in the field? He smiled at the question, and replied: “Well, there’s a lot of good to be done in the world where you shower before work.”
AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships: ‘Positive, Fruitful, Rewarding’
Stepping away from a research career for a year or two to work in government can seem like a daring move, but the challenge and the risk can be enormously beneficial both for the scientists and society, said green chemistry pioneer Paul Anastas, science adviser to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In a talk to the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows on 14 September, Anastas emphasized the crucial role of scientists in developing policy for a sustainable society.
“If we’re actually going to make an impact on what tomorrow looks like, and it’s going to be a positive impact, then we’re going to have to design ourselves, design our own experiences, design our own expertise, in ways that will be relevant to these great challenges,” Anastas told the new class of Fellows. “I can think of few experiences that you would ever have that will be more positive, more fruitful, more rewarding and have a higher impact, than the AAAS Fellowship.”
Read the perspective on the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships offered by Paul Anastas, the green chemistry pioneer who now serves as science adviser to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Learn more about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.