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Fellows Look Back and Ahead at Year-End Summit

The 2015-16 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows (STPF) marked the end of their tenures at the annual year-end summit with some looking back at the past year, as well as listening to advice and information for going forward as alumni. Some also took on the challenge of describing their fellowship experiences in three and a half minutes using 10 slides, while others contributed posters.

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Fellows wrap up their year-long fellowships each year at a year-end summit event. | Michael Wheeler/AAAS


Nathan Green, a fellow at the U.S. Department of State, led off the 10-slide challenge at the July 21 event.

“This year, I helped secure labs in Monrovia, sponsored a diplomat in Geneva …and partnered with Afghans in Aman and in India. And along the way, I learned that scientists can make pretty good diplomats as well,” said Green, who is now returning to academia. “But the greatest experience this year was getting to hang out with the coolest scientists anyone knows. You all are the brightest, most hard-working people I have ever met.”

STPF Director Cynthia Robinson assured the departing fellows that they will always be part of the STPF community, and additional speakers offered suggestions on how the alums could continue to promote science and influence policy.

“All of you can be individual opinion-leaders,” with the use of social media, said Matthew Nisbet, associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern University and a science communication researcher at AAAS. Researchers have found people are increasingly turning to Facebook as their number one source of news and information, he said. By using Twitter or Facebook to share information about climate change or important votes coming up in Congress, STPF alumni help their followers see news they might not normally encounter or seek out.

“This is not a form of advocacy. You’re being a guide…to what people should be paying attention to,” Nisbet said.

Nisbet also offered advice on ways to present scientific information to audiences who are increasingly polarized, and who tend to reject information that doesn’t fit their social identities. “Be policy-relevant, but not policy-descriptive,” and try to expand the options people can choose rather than push them in a certain direction, Nisbet said. Realizing that science may not be the driving factor in decision-making, and recognizing the other issues people are concerned about can also help scientists frame information to better appeal to a particular audience.

Fellows can also remain active in affinity groups. Stephanie Albin and Nicole Peterson, fellows at the National Science Foundation, gave a slide presentation about the Federal Innovation and Research Evaluation (FIRE) affinity group, which they co-chaired. Throughout the year, the FIRE group offered several events to showcase different evaluation methods, collaborating with affinity groups that focus on big data and social science.

Neuroscientist Cara Altimus spent her fellowship at the Department of Justice, where researchers are studying memory and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, how trauma affects people’s brains and behaviors, and the neural circuits involved in controlling and modifying behavior.

During her talk, Altimus said she learned during her fellowship that more than 75% of people who were incarcerated are arrested again within five years, and that 83% of inmates have a mental health or substance abuse problem. “We don’t think of these things as neuroscience problems, but neuroscientists are studying the mechanisms behind behavior,” she said. And looking at MRI scans that show the differences in the brains of substance abusers versus non-abusers who are in jail, “it should be no surprise that treatment options that are addressing the neural circuits are more effective,” Altimus said.

“We hold the year-end summit to allow fellows to reflect on their experiences and spend time synthesizing new policy knowledge with outcomes,” said Robinson. “It’s gratifying to hear about the fellows’ year and exciting to anticipate their futures.”