Working on Capitol Hill was already a whirlwind experience for the scientists and engineers taking on a Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF). Then came COVID-19.
For two fellows, working for members of Congress has become even more intense as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is also an incredible opportunity to apply their technical backgrounds and champion evidence and data in decision-making during a global crisis.
“It is satisfying to contribute in an informed way,” said AAAS Member Georgia Lagoudas, a bioengineer working with Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “I get to wake up every day and figure out: OK, what is the one thing I can work on today to make a difference?”
Lagoudas began her fellowship in September 2019 on Markey’s energy and environment team. Once COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, she knew her background researching bacteria and building devices to rapidly sequence pathogen DNA was best utilized on the health team. Her colleagues agreed and welcomed the expertise.
A key focus has been drafting oversight letters for Sen. Markey and colleagues to ask questions and raise concerns about the U.S. pandemic response. For example, she contributed to efforts calling on the Trump administration to use the Defense Production Act to produce coronavirus tests and medical equipment. She also helped query the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Vice President Mike Pence about including grocery store employees and others who have become essential frontline workers in national estimates for masks, hand sanitizer, and other personal protective equipment. A letter to FEMA and Vice President Pence about personal protective equipment distribution to states was ultimately signed by all 11 members of Congress representing Massachusetts, which was then covered by The Boston Globe.
“This has been the craziest time of my life,” Lagoudas said. “My Ph.D. was mostly pipetting, moving liquid from one tube to another, for five years.”
Similarly, systems engineer Sarah Rovito, a Congressional S&T Policy Fellow sponsored by IEEE-USA, had to shift gears in a hurry with her work for Representative Seth Moulton (D-Mass.). She had been working on issues around emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and 5G. When the pandemic hit, it was all-hands-on-deck to address coronavirus.
Each day, Rovito is collating relevant science news stories and sharing them on Rep. Moulton’s website. The information helps guide discussions with local public health experts and constituents during the rapidly-evolving crisis, be it about the need for social distancing or why widespread testing is so important for reopening the U.S. economy.
“Our number one goal is to keep the residents of Massachusetts’s 6th District healthy, safe and informed,” Rovito said.
She has also been responding to constituent requests and questions, especially around biotechnology, manufacturing, and personal protective equipment, and trying to help connect potential partners. Through this process, Rovito discovered there is no centralized source of information about funding sources for R&D.
Besides learning what Congress can do in an emergency, the fellows are discovering the limits of that power. In the early days of the response, Lagoudas reached out to scientists in her network to see what they might need to accelerate their coronavirus research or response capabilities. She found that one institute had the capacity to process 2,000 coronavirus tests a day but is only at half its capacity – not because there isn’t a need, but because existing healthcare systems hinder new collaborations. Unfortunately, those issues are not best addressed at the Congressional level.
“It’s challenging, interesting and heart-breaking,” Lagoudas said.
Another challenge is keeping up with the response efforts without getting burnt out through the rest of the fellowship, which wraps up in September.
“We are realizing this will be a marathon,” Rovito said, “but it still feels like a sprint.”
While not going as originally planned, both Rovito and Lagoudas expressed deep appreciation for the fellowship opportunity. Lagoudas was particularly impressed with how the program sets up participants for success to go from the lab to drafting legislation and policy proposals and briefing members of Congress on scientific issues.
They were both surprised to learn the degree to which constituent calls and emails drive activities of Congressional offices (and both suggest reaching out to your elected officials because it really does make a difference!).
They were also surprised by how much freedom they have to pitch ideas and contribute in significant ways. The pandemic has dramatically underscored the need for clear science communication, and the continued presence of science policy fellows on the Hill.
“We need more people who can bridge that gap,” Rovito said, “to really reinforce science and engineering issues to policymakers and enable them to make informed decisions.”