When Dr. Margaret Hamburg left medicine to become New York City’s health commissioner in 1991, her beloved great aunt Winnie expressed dismay. To Aunt Winnie, being a doctor was a pinnacle achievement, and not to be lightly abandoned.
“She’s still a doctor,” Hamburg recounted her father saying, “it’s just that now she has eight million patients!”
Hamburg, now the Foreign Secretary for the National Academy of Medicine and chair of the board of AAAS, told this story to the incoming class of Science & Technology Policy Fellows (STPF) on the first day of their orientation in Washington as a comfort: that exploring beyond the boundaries of their academic disciplines may feel foreign, but that they are not alone.
“The kind of training in science and technology that you’re bringing doesn’t always exist in the places where you’ll find yourself,” Hamburg added. “There is no doubt that this is a critical time to be undertaking this kind of work, of trying to harness the extraordinary advances in science and technology and apply them to the big policy challenges before us.”
For 2019-20, the 47th class of Science & Technology Policy Fellows comprises 273 yearlong fellows, of whom 178 are in their first year and 95 are embarking on a second. They join over 3,000 other fellows who have completed the program over the last five decades.
After completing the two-week orientation in early September, 33 of the fellows will interview and be matched with Congressional offices and committees, and the remaining 240 will fan out to agencies and offices across the federal government. While some fellows take on placements in science-forward entities such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a wide variety of agencies will host fellows, including the departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security.
How to make the most of the upcoming year was on the minds and lips of virtually all the fellows at orientation.
Billy Hall, whose doctoral training in global and sociocultural studies led him to his fellowship with the Bureau of Food Security at USAID, said he is interested in issues related to land tenure. He hopes the placement will enable him to contribute to creating more opportunities for sustainability for small-scale growers and farmers around the world.
“Historically, USAID hasn’t had a big policy agenda for their mission,” Hall said. “I’m excited to be working with some folks who want to strengthen that agenda.”
Vince Tedjasaputra, who heads to the Office of Legislative Affairs within the NSF’s Office of the Director, hopes to help other scientists hone their storytelling skills to better connect not only with policymakers, but also stakeholders. As for his technical training in exercise and pulmonary physiology—which arose out of his collegiate opera-singing and hammer-throwing interests—he hopes the placement will provide him with opportunities to get involved with policies related to early rehab treatments for COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Elizabeth Venit, a veterinarian who will be joining the State Department to work in public health policy, said she looks forward to the opportunity to apply her work on a much broader scale. She’ll be working with a portfolio of scientists in Africa and Asia to advance their goals on “science for good.” In addition, many work with infection disease agents, and Venit will be helping them with strategies to make their facilities more secure.
“I’m very much looking forward to my work having more of a global impact,” Venit said.
No matter the plan the fellows may or may not hold, AAAS Interim CEO Alan Leshner advised them all to be well prepared to throw it all out the window.
“My career had absolutely no predictability,” Leshner said. “So take the opportunities as they come. Never turn down a job you haven’t been offered. And never forget you’re a scientist. Exploit your fresh eyes—you’re here to bring science to policy. And you’re doing it with a perspective that’s different from all the people who have been here for 40 years.”