AAAS’ New S&T Policy Fellowships Program Head Comes Full Circle

Jennifer Pearl, a AAAS Science &Technology Policy fellow, returns as director of the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships Program that had a lasting impact on her and her career. | Steve Sartori/Syracuse University

Mathematician Jennifer Pearl’s scientific career was already taking shape when the American Association for the Advancement of Science granted her a one-year fellowship that places hundreds of scientists and engineers in policy positions spread over each of the three branches of government.

Pearl’s placement in 2002 at the National Science Foundation, an agency that funds nearly a quarter of all the basic research conducted by U.S. colleges and universities, began a touchstone year focused on improving graduate education in science and engineering. The experience helped launch a career dedicated to using scientific knowledge as the foundation for resolving complex and pressing issues.

Beginning with her interview at AAAS for the fellowship, Pearl found herself at home in a foreign land as she fielded questions from eight science policy experts with “jobs I didn’t even know existed.” The student who had dedicated her academic life to mathematics and never served on the student council went on to hold significant positions at the National Academies and at the National Science Foundation.

Her career comes full circle on Monday when she becomes director of AAAS’ Science & Technology Policy Fellowships Program, which, since 1973, has helped some 3,300 scientists and engineers ply their scientific knowledge and related skills in the policy arena, solving problems big and small facing leaders in Congress, executive agencies and judicial offices. Along the way, participants acquire a deep understanding of, and often a passion for, the policymaking process. 

“The value that science and scientists can bring to government is not debatable, especially perhaps in the current climate where there is real public doubt about the veracity of theories that have been substantiated repeatedly by scientific inquiry,” said Pearl. “Encouraging and providing a mechanism for more scientists and engineers to be involved in all branches of government is necessary for the health and future growth of our country.”

Pearl underscores the importance of incorporating the fundamentals of science in policymaking – the undying necessity of data and a solid understanding of how to distinguish factors that make one thing lead to the next from those that sometimes occur at the same time but may not be related.

“Scientists as a group are unified by our common understanding of the importance of data,” she said. “We understand the difference between causation and correlation and bring a skeptic’s mindset to the table in order to help ensure a sound basis for policy decisions.”

Such an approach can effectively address the policy challenges facing the country and in some cases the world, including those raised by concerns such as climate change, health care issues, trade, terrorism and agriculture, said Pearl.

Fifteen years ago, Pearl brought to her S&T Policy fellowship three years of postdoctoral mathematics research, experience designing a novel master’s program at Rice University, time as a college-level mathematics teacher and a period delving into the technical and legal world of intellectual property.

“That fellowship year was a wonderful year, which is one of the reasons I wanted to come back and be director of this program,” Pearl said. “It was the first time I was working someplace where it was a very collaborative environment, everyone was working for the benefit of the U.S. scientific community. People were very smart and people weren’t pushing their own thing, they were pushing what would be best for the scientific community.”

The New Jersey native hopes to bring to the S&T Policy Program important lessons learned during that fellowship and later developed during her career. Among them is a dedication to opening avenues for professional development of scientists to help build the next generation of scientists and engineers, equip them with the tools needed to thrive in tomorrow’s workplace and ensure they provide value to the ever-changing needs of host agencies. 

Creating a work environment that encourages team members to share and test ideas is an approach she first encountered as a S&T Policy fellow through the guidance of a mentor whose open and engaging approach helped frame her own management style. Shorthand for the approach: ask team members “What do you think?” and encourage them to “Take a whack” at their best ideas.

Pearl said people work best in environments that foster new ideas – even bad ones – because ideas produce valuable discussions that then generate more ideas. She encountered such a management style in her first meeting as an S&T policy fellow when her mentor asked: “‘Jennifer, if you had no constraints at all, how would you handle this?’” she recalled. “What a great question. When does somebody ask you a question like that? I’ve tried to incorporate that in my work going forward.”

Certainly, understanding how the S&T Policy Program intersects with AAAS overall also is important, she noted, citing the powerful promise of the thousands of former S&T Policy fellows spread abroad and around the country in government, academia, industries and non-profits. “That Rolodex, if you will, is worth an incredible amount and we must think about how best to engage them.”