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Harvard Reports: Congress’s Need for S&T Expertise

A November 2020 Harvard University report, “Building a 21st Century Congress: Improving STEM Policy Advice in the Emerging Technology Era,” says that “it is time to get to work” on shoring up the ability of the U.S. Congress to understand and act on crucial policy issues related to science and technology – from artificial intelligence and facial recognition to freedom of speech and e-commerce. While a dearth of STEM expertise in Congress is old news, it is an area that new data and knowledge can help jumpstart.

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STEM expertise in Congress is of vital importance. Members of Congress cannot afford to miss the opportunity to learn about the ways technology could help to solve societal problems. And Congress plays a big role in committing federal funding to research that can combat pandemics, energy needs, and so much more.

Earlier, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs issued a companion report, “Building a 21st Century Congress: Improving Congress’s Science and Technology Expertise.” Both reports drew on multiple sources and types of data. Interviews with entities that have deep experience bringing science to policymaking such as the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program illuminate many aspects of the issue, and a systematic review of barriers to incorporating STEM expertise in Congress – from a lack of institutional support via a body specifically chartered to provide STEM advice, to an unwillingness to devote adequate resources to hire enough people with STEM expertise – points the way to solutions.

The Belfer Center interviewed STPF staff about the issue at large and in particular about fellows who serve in Congress through the Congressional Science & Engineering Fellowships. The 2019 report highlights STPF as a valuable mechanism for bringing scientists and engineers to Congress. Stating that, “Congress should actively solicit S&T fellows and increase the number it uses,” it also supports the argument that with appropriate resources, the fellowship program is a good model that could be scaled up to better meet long-standing demand on the Hill for more STEM expertise.

“Several organizations help STEM professionals to serve in policy advising roles on Capitol Hill already, like @AAAS_STPF and @congressfellows. They do a great job. They've also convinced many members of Congress of the value of STEM expertise,” tweeted Mike Miesen, one of the authors of both reports.

The second report highlights how employing STEM professionals benefits both the S&T experts themselves as well Congress. And it explores ways for Congress to work with academia, nonprofit organizations, and other stakeholders to create and support STEM career pathways that lead to Capitol Hill. It also provides six methods to encourage STEM professionals to seek policy advising roles.

Miesen concluded, “Ultimately, improving Congress’s ability to deal with emerging technology issues will require Congress, universities, non-profits, and the private sector to work together. It’s a job for all of us.”


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