This month, 300 scientists and engineers brought their expertise to the world of science policy as AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows. An intensive orientation in Washington, D.C., kicked off the fellows’ year – a momentous one for the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program as it celebrates its 50th anniversary of placing trained scientists in the federal government to learn first-hand about policymaking and use their knowledge and skills to address pressing societal challenges.
The orientation, held Sept. 1-13, was imbued with wisdom from science policy veterans – including many alumni fellows – on how they can contribute to science policy that draws from diverse perspectives and yields benefits for all.
Throughout their fellowships, fellows will bring their expertise to advise on how science can shape policy, how science can be integrated into legislation and regulation, and how policy can strengthen the role of science and technology in society, according to STPF alumna fellow Rosina Bierbaum, research professor and chair of natural economics at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and dean emerita of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.
“You’re going to need to help find middle ground, maintain scientific integrity and protect public interest if you see that science is getting torqued or misused,” Bierbaum told fellows. Bierbaum, whose science policy experience includes serving on Barack Obama’s President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, began her science policy career as a fellow in the Office of Technology Assessment.
The first in-person orientation to be held by STPF since 2019 aimed to prepare fellows for these tasks and many more. The event included intensive sessions on subjects ranging from political history to the federal budget process, along with panels and workshops on inclusive leadership and communicating effectively within the federal government.
First, however, Rashada Alexander, STPF director and alumna of the program, welcomed fellows with advice, touting the importance of listening and learning through the fellowship – from other fellows, from the experts in their placement office and from your own inevitable mistakes.
She also shared details about the 50th class of fellows: Of the 300 fellows, 31 are legislative fellows placed on Capitol Hill, 268 executive branch fellows placed in agencies and offices ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to the National Institutes of Health, one is a judicial branch fellow and two are alumni fellows.
It’s a significant change from the launch of the program 50 years ago, when AAAS, the American Physical Society, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers put seven fellows on Capitol Hill. Today’s fellows are a diverse group, Alexander noted, something that’s foundational to STPF.
“We continue to be committed to bringing that excellence to the table and making sure it’s a substantive and viable part of the work ahead, because we need all of that excellence at the table, and you all are part of that excellence,” said Alexander.
“It’s not just being in the room,” added Alexander. “It’s bringing something to the room, so we want to make sure that you know how to do that, continually and sustainably.”
Alondra Nelson, deputy assistant to President Joe Biden and acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, echoed the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in science policy, both in its creation and its outcomes.
The Biden-Harris administration came into office facing serious challenges, among them the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and systemic racial injustice and economic inequity – challenges that the president believes in the power of science and technology to help solve, Nelson said. Innovation must be “a door to open a better future for all people” – and a tool for equity, she said.
“OSTP envisions how science and technology can build an equitable, safe and flourishing world by tackling the tough challenges we face today, anticipating the unknown opportunities and obstacles ahead, and driving boldly toward solutions,” Nelson said.
Nelson shared how AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows have contributed to OSTP efforts toward that equitable, safe and flourishing world. One fellow co-led the policy guidance recently released by OSTP on making federally funded research publicly accessible, while another fellow led an initiative on clean indoor air that has garnered guidance from agencies like EPA.
“Never doubt the impact that you, as a single motivated individual, can have” – and how that impact can be magnified and elevated when working in partnership with others, Nelson said.
Alexander also urged fellows to seek out opportunities to maximize their impact during their fellowship year: “Learn as much as you can, and say yes.”
She added, “We know you can do amazing things, and we can't wait to see you do them.”