Meet the AAAS Staff Who Connect with Congress
AAAS is more than just science—or even Science.
As the world’s largest scientific organization, AAAS is deeply involved in the public debate over issues facing the United States and the world, from Arctic melt to the Zika virus. And the day-to-day voice of scientists and engineers in the corridors of Washington is the AAAS Office of Government Relations.
Director Joanne Padrón Carney, Associate Director Erin Heath, Senior Government Relations Officer Sean Gallagher, and Associate Government Relations Officer Chloe McPherson keep tabs on what’s happening in Congress and the administration and how it affects the scientific community. They come from a variety of backgrounds, but were drawn to AAAS by their belief that research, education, and expertise have an important role to play in society.
All four talked with MemberCentral this month about how they became full-time advocates for research and why the work is important.
Q: What drew you to this field?
Carney: My path was unusual. My undergraduate degree was in Spanish language and literature, and my intent was to pursue a master’s degree in international relations. But I could not afford to go to graduate school, so I landed a job at a nonprofit, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which represents aerospace engineers. That was a good fit for me, because my father was an aerospace engineer, so I did grow up in a science and engineering household.
During my years at AIAA, I had an opportunity to attend hearings and write up summaries of issues related to NASA and the International Space Station, and my interest in science and technology blossomed then. I met a professor at George Washington University, John Logsdon, and I learned you could pursue a degree in science and technology policy. It was part of an international affairs program, so it afforded me an opportunity to not only delve deeply into science and technology policy but also how it relates to larger international issues. That widened my horizons to other issues beyond aerospace, to broader issues of science and technology, and that led me to AAAS.
Gallagher: I have a pretty linear path. I started as a staff member on Capitol Hill—2007 was my first year. For almost eight years, I worked for five different members of Congress. The last one I worked for was our current CEO, Rush Holt, who was a physicist before he became a congressman and science issues were really important to him.
When you’re a staffer on Capitol Hill, you have a portfolio of issues that you handle. Mine ended up being health care, defense, veterans affairs, and science and technology. As a result, I worked directly with AAAS on science policy issues. When my time in Congress was coming towards an end, I knew I wanted to continue working in the field of science. I had a deep respect for AAAS, and had worked previously with Joanne who is our Director of Government Relations, and thought I could help out the team and advance the mission of the organization.
Heath: I started as a journalist. I majored in journalism in college, and I wanted to be a science writer, writing about scientific discoveries. I ended up staying in the Washington, DC, area, and what do people really care about in DC? They care about government and politics. So I got a job at a nonpartisan government and politics magazine, where I wrote about science policy. I got very interested in that, and after a few years as a reporter, I decided to jump into the science policy arena myself. I earned a master’s degree in political science in London, and then I came back and landed a job with a scientific society for biologists. I managed their media relations and also got my feet wet in policy; it was an excellent place to transition into science policy full time. In 2006, when AAAS had an opening in the government relations office, I joined the team.
McPherson: I’m the newest member of the team. I’ve been here nine months, the first six I spent as an intern. My background is in mechanical engineering and human-computer interaction. Most of my previous work experience has focused on energy and climate change, including an internship at the White House last fall. While contemplating new opportunities after the White House, science and technology policy seemed like a natural next step, an area where I could combine what I’d learned in my engineering degrees with the world of public policy. AAAS had an opening for an S&T intern in government relations, and the rest is history!
Q: What about the job do you enjoy the most?
Gallagher: A lot of my job involves training and teaching scientists who visit Capitol Hill how to communicate with policymakers, and I always start off by saying, “We’re the good guys, and it’s pretty easy to see why.” Science is progress. It produces jobs, it has a positive economic impact, plus there’s a serendipity to it—it shoots us to the moon, and it uncovers cures for cancer and solves a whole host of other pressing challenges. The actual purpose behind our work offers a lot of fulfillment. I get a high sense of satisfaction knowing success for us is more research for curing diseases or a better environmental policy. Some of our metrics for success include enabling scientists to better communicate their work and their value to policymakers and the public… and that is a pretty dynamic thing. I get to learn a quite a bit.
Q: Why should scientists and engineers speak to policymakers about research?
Carney: While science and technology generally receives bipartisan support in Congress and they recognize the importance of science and technology, and the public in general have a high regard for science, you cannot rest on your laurels. It’s important to always speak out and communicate the importance of investing in research and the contributions research has made in the past and will continue to make in the future towards issues that are important to society.
Q: As technology advances, are policymakers more attuned to these issues?
Heath: Every year we have champions in Congress. That, luckily, hasn’t changed. The players may change, but just about every policymaker has some connection to science. That’s helpful.
Q: I know you’re still new, but what’s the biggest takeaway from your time here so far?
McPherson: One of the most interesting projects I’ve worked on since being here is the annual CASE workshop that our office hosts every spring. STEM graduate students from around the country come to DC for a 3-day crash course in science and technology policy and working with government. It was great to see fellow scientists and engineers discover all of the ways that they can be engaged in science and policy outside of academia.