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Fellowships Bring Much-Needed Expertise to Lawmakers

U.S. Capitol building
Fellows provide technical expertise for a wide variety of policymakers. | AAAS

Since 1973, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships have provided essential scientific expertise to U.S. policymakers in Washington, D.C. From its inaugural class of seven fellows, supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the program now facilitated by AAAS's Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) brings more than 250 scientists each year to work in congressional offices, executive branch agencies, and the federal judiciary.

Like their predecessors, the 2021-2022 fellowship class that began work on 1 September will bring a much-needed set of technical skills, such as data analysis, along with subject matter expertise in fields from epidemiology to advanced manufacturing, to support the U.S. Congress and other federal policymakers.

According to a November 2020 report by the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, U.S. policymakers lack the resources to maintain congressional committee staff to absorb the complex science and technology information needed to inform policy. In the past two decades, other sources of scientific and technical expertise have disappeared as well, such as the Office of Technology Assessment, defunded in 1995. In the face of this diminished institutional knowledge and support, the Belfer Center report noted, the STPF program has been "one of the oldest and most respected pathways sending technical talent to Capitol Hill."

A 2019 report by the Goodman Research Group that reviewed the program's impact found that 95% of the government staff who mentor the fellows and were interviewed by Goodman felt that the fellows made important contributions to their offices, including translating scientific content into accessible language, providing expertise on complex problems, and drafting briefing documents, among other work.

"The outcomes can be seen all around U.S. in the thousands of alumni working at the intersection of science and policy, and it serves as a model for virtually every other fellowship that brings science to all levels of government, at home and abroad," said AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh about the Goodman report.

Bringing Skills to Bear

Diana Pankevich, a 2014-2016 Executive Branch Fellow at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in a 28 May live chat with STPF that her scientific background was immediately useful in her new job — even though she was a neuroscientist now working on climate change issues.

"I was able to use the skills of being able to quickly research topics, being able to dig deep enough into the topic to understand it and figure out what are the challenges and what are the opportunities," recalled Pankevich, now a director for science and innovation policy at Pfizer.

According to the Belfer Center report, scientists also bring "metacognitive diversity" to the policymaking process, approaching problems and designing solutions in a different way from their new peers in government. Georgia Hartman, a 2020-2022 Executive Branch Fellow, has experienced this phenomenon in her work with the Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Hub at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

As an anthropologist, she said in the 28 May live chat, it was second nature for her — but not some of her colleagues — to consider the different roles of people in the environmental projects pursued by the agency. "I think part of the reason I'm there, and why they want other social scientists there, is that we have a really different way of understanding the world."

Learning on the Job

During their tenure, fellows dramatically increase their understanding of policymaking and productive collaboration, according to the Goodman findings. These skills remain valuable career assets even if fellows return to academia. Gillian Bowser, a 2011 Executive Branch Fellow in the U.S. Department of State's Office of Marine Conservation and an associate professor in ecosystem science and sustainability at Colorado State University, said in an 18 August STPF live chat that the fellowship had broadened her concept of multidisciplinary collaboration. On negotiating teams like those she worked on at the State Department, "you could be talking to social scientists, you could be talking to different countries, talking to other scientists, you're talking to people all over, and you have to come up with a common language."

Paul Lartey, a 2017-2019 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Science Foundation's Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, had worked in the pharmaceutical industry for years and thought that government work would be more "laid back," he said in the 28 May chat. "That was one assumption I had that very quickly disappeared. People do work hard, and I mean hard…I kept telling myself, this country is in good hands, because people will just work until the job is done."

Don Ufford, a 2020-2022 Executive Branch Fellow at the Office of Advanced Manufacturing at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said in the 18 August chat that he had been impressed to see the network of former fellows in action in Washington. "Some parts of the U.S. government can be siloed between agencies whereas it seems like the fellows can cross over those agencies a little bit more easily," said Ufford, a former director of global vehicle engineering at Ford Motor Company, "and maybe create some opportunities that wouldn't be there otherwise."

The Goodman report found that 42% of fellows went into federal, state, or local government jobs at the conclusion of their fellowships.

"When you hear STPF fellows and alumni talk about their experiences, the lasting impacts across multiple facets of our government and scientific advancement become obvious. Reports like those produced by the Belfer Center and the Goodman Research Group get me very excited, because they help quantify and enhance the story of the impact of STPF," said Rashada Alexander, the program's director. "It also helps folks see how investing in and supporting STPF yield a lot of much-needed value and technical support to policymakers."

[A version of this story appeared in AAAS News and Notes in the Sept. 24 2021 issue of Science.


Becky Ham

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