While 40 years separated our entrance to the program, and many features of the program and science policy itself have changed, much of the fundamental experience remains the same. Both of us were working in specialized fields and wanted to gain a better understanding of the many ways science intersects with Washington policymaking and learn more about how the Federal government, and the complex set of institutions through which it operates, actually works. We shared a passion for finding ways that scientists can work through this system to improve the way the shared national investment in programs can produce national and global benefits.
In what ways were your fellowships similar or dissimilar?
Both of us were overwhelmed by the scope and complexity of federal institutions and the unexpected number of places where science is critical to sound policymaking. In 1974 the landscape was considerably simpler, but the role of scientists in policymaking was not well understood. The “two cultures” challenge between science and policy was enormous – one of the goals of the fellowship program was to encourage productive collisions between these cultures. Scientists were compelled to understand the economic, cultural, legal, and political issues that shape decisions – and the way the tools offered by scientists could be of practical value. By 2014, thanks in no small part to the STPF program, the role of science in policymaking is much better understood.
How has the fellowship impacted your careers?
HENRY: Both of us were fearful about taking the plunge into federal policy and out of academia, but we are delighted that we did. It completely transformed my career by opening previously unimagined horizons in energy policy and many other areas. The fellowship put me in close contact with a wide range of agencies and Congressional offices. Perhaps most importantly, it also introduced me to a wide range of people, many of them fellows, who have remained close friends and colleagues to this day.
The AAAS fellowship program has played a central role in producing people who have built science deeply and productively into Washington policymaking. It’s gotten a lot more sophisticated over 40 years, but the core idea remains a great one.
SOPHIE: Thus far, my fellowship has been an exciting whirlwind. I’ve been struck by the strong camaraderie among policy fellows – smart, hard-working people with a kaleidoscopic array of scientific expertise. In many cases, fellows are active outside the realm of expertise and are, perhaps for the first time in their careers, valued not for their specific expertise, but for diligence, adaptability, and congeniality. The opportunity to see the spark of new ideas, many from scientists and engineers, unfold on a national and international stage has been humbling and inspiring.
Do you have any advice for fellow fellows?
SOPHIE: Stay connected with the AAAS network, which can offer professional support, solidarity, and perspective on the vast range of opportunities DC provides. Think broadly about the ways that you can contribute and the value that you bring – the results may surprise you. Finally, while scientists are trained as specialists, we often forget that being a generalist is in itself a specialty. Harnessing the ability to connect the dots between research and policy across a wide array of subjects, actors, and arenas is perhaps the greatest opportunity and challenge the fellowship presents.
HENRY: Be a young person on whom nothing is lost. Ask questions and overcome the fear of asking dumb questions. You may find out that most of the other people in the room don’t know the answer either but are afraid to ask. Try to understand the big and basic ideas in fields you know little about – whether it’s a scientific discipline or macroeconomics, or the structure of laws and regulations. Figure out who in the different organizations you work with are people you can count on because they have a deep passion for what they’re doing and are good at doing it. It’s a network that lasts a lifetime. And don’t panic when you think that you’re in over your head. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
* Read current and past issues of the quarterly newsletter Fellowship Focus here.