Sixteen years ago, mathematician Jennifer Pearl moved to Washington from Houston’s Rice University to take a post as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation.
Last month, she welcomed a new class of fellows to the capital as the fellowship program’s director.
Pearl joined AAAS in 2017 after 12 years at the NSF. She now oversees the $16 million program, which is bringing more than 270 new fellows to spend a year or two working on Capitol Hill, in executive branch agencies and, in one case, in an office involved in the training of federal judges. With applications for the next class due Nov. 1, Pearl talked a bit about her own experience with the program and how it changed her career.
You’re a former S&T policy fellow. How did that experience affect your career?
It was a pivot point for me. When I came as a fellow in the 2002-2003 cohort, most of my experience had been in research mathematics. I found as I progressed in my career that I wanted to work on broader problems and work in a more interactive environment. I didn’t know how to find that. I had learned early on about the fellowship through AAAS advertising, and thought it might be something I’d want to do someday.
One of the roles I had at Rice University was developing the curriculum for a new professional master’s program, and part of that was a science policy class. I got to work with Neal Lane, who was a former NSF director and presidential science adviser. I mentioned the fellowship to him, and he encouraged me to go for it. I didn’t know a ton about the government. I didn’t know how the budget worked. I’d been a mathematician all my life, and I didn’t take history or poli-sci or civics classes when I was in college, and I had a quite scientific-focused upbringing.
At that time, the selection interviews we now do over video conferencing were done in person. I came into the AAAS building here on New York Avenue and sat in a conference room around a table with six or seven committee members who had such interesting jobs. They were scientists who worked for organizations I had never heard of, like the Congressional Research Service or the Brookings Institution. By the time it was finished, I thought, “Even if I don’t get this fellowship, it was worthwhile just to go through this interview and meet these people and learn what’s possible.”
How did it change your outlook?
It certainly changed my outlook on the government. Before arriving for my fellowship, I had an impression that folks who worked for the government worked from nine to five and had a big stamp that said “Denied.” … But when I got here I found a completely different atmosphere than what I anticipated. When I went to my interviews, I met government staff members who were so smart, so engaging, and so dedicated to their jobs and the mission of their office. I loved the environment working at NSF. There were exceptionally smart people working collaboratively for the benefit of the science and engineering community of the United States — pushing forward research, pushing forward education.
It also changed how I looked at my career. Prior to coming, I knew I could be a math professor, I knew I could teach math in high school, I knew I could work for the NSA. But these were the only things I knew that a mathematician could do. The fellowship showed me all the different ways my skills could be useful, and that really opened my eyes.
Is there a single, big lesson you learned from your fellowship?
I would say I learned a good leadership lesson. Early in my tenure as a fellow, I was in a group meeting of about eight people or so, and I was the newest person in the room, the youngest person in the room and one of the only women in the room. My mentor was leading this meeting and he said to me, “Jennifer, if you could handle this any way, and you had no constraints, what would you do?” And I thought, “What a great question.” Nobody ever asked me a question like that before. It was something I have always remembered, and I now try to introduce it myself as a manager, as a director, thinking about how we go forward. It was something I brought to bear in my time as an NSF program director, when I would be involved in conversations with investigators in the community who wanted to know how they could make their project fit into a fairly prescriptive funding announcement. My technique is to say, “Let’s sit back for a minute. Tell me what you really want to do. Forget this funding announcement — if you could do whatever you wanted, how would your project proceed?” That way, I could better advise researchers about how to target their projects to NSF.
How does your background as an S&T policy fellow inform your work as director?
There’s kind of a double-edged sword to this. I see myself in the fellows, and I remember what it was like to be there, so I can empathize with what they’re going through — their troubles, their interests, where they are. But there’s also a danger to it, because every fellow and every fellowship is unique. I am careful not to reflect my own personal experience on them. I try to find a balance between maintaining enthusiasm and maintaining the ability to relate to what’s going on, with an understanding that I need to think beyond my own personal experience. I think about the evolution of the program as a whole and each fellow as individuals who have their own contributions to make and their own career paths to forge.
How has the work the fellows do evolved?
We like to think of the policy fellowship as a cohesive program, but at the same time, with much growth in the program over the last decade, the fellows as a group are having very different experiences working on a plethora of issues and in a plethora of roles. We have fellows who are contributing to policy on Capitol Hill and in policy offices in agencies. We have fellows who are in programmatic offices, contributing to how agencies run federal programs. We have fellows who are doing communications or outreach work, either within the government or to the public.
We also see increasing demand for fellows with data science expertise. One thing we’d like to do is increase our recruitment of fellows with good data capability.
How do policy fellows contribute to policymakers’ understanding and engagement on scientific issues?
Fellows bring expertise in all fields of science and engineering and work on critical topics from biosecurity to vehicle safety to international development to agriculture. Some of our fellows are going to be working in offices that have almost no staff with scientific expertise other than themselves. They will be providing the scientific perspective on anything that comes along that looks even a little bit like science. They provide a unique set of skills and knowledge to that office. We have other fellows who will be working in an office full of scientists. Their work portfolio may be more focused and their skill set might be used a little bit differently.
You mentioned more data science. Are there any other goals you have for the program?
There are three main goals for the program right now. One relates to meeting the demand in Congress for science and engineering fellows, which is much greater than we can accommodate. In recent years, we have had as high as 100 requests from Congress, from both sides of the aisle, for science and engineering fellows. The congressional fellows program is managed by AAAS but jointly supported by two dozen professional society partners. Together with our partners, we can only support about 35 fellows on the Hill. There’s an extreme difference between the demand and what we can supply, and the supply is limited only by funding. So, I’d like to raise funds in order to increase the number of fellows we’re placing in Congress.
A second goal is to develop a robust alumni engagement program. We have over 3,000 alums of this program in its 46-year history. They have unique and distinguished skill sets. They work all over the country — and the world — in all different sectors, and we’d like to engage them in the best ways possible, in work with the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program, in work with AAAS initiatives outside the fellowship, and as a resource to our nation. We are taking steps to understand how they want to relate back to us and what we can provide that would be useful to them.
Third, we are working to better use our own internal program data to improve the fellowship program.
What’s your elevator pitch for someone thinking about applying for next year?
This fellowship will open your eyes to things you never knew were possible. It will give you connections you never imagined you could make.