Nearly 300 scientists recently began yearlong assignments on staff in congressional offices, federal agencies and the Federal Judicial Center as American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellows.
Though the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships are now in their 48th year, the recent confluence of nationwide crises makes this a unique time for the program. The new fellows’ seven-day orientation, from Sept. 1 to 10, featured sessions on serving in an election year, COVID-19 response, U.S. political history, and the relationship between innovation, race and public policy.
“Being able to communicate science — being able to communicate with policymakers, being able to take part in policymaking — is not a hobby, it’s a job,” said Sudip Parikh, CEO of AAAS, in remarks during the orientation. “We need people who can live at this intersection. It’s not a place for amateurs because, frankly, it’s too important.”
During her welcome address, Beth Rosner, interim director of the fellowship program, praised the incoming group for taking a potentially career-defining step despite the challenges presented by the pandemic.
“I wish we could all be together in person,” Rosner said. “This very situation reinforces how important science and informed science policy are in shaping our country and influencing the world.”
“Get ready for a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she added. “Fellows over the past four decades have described the fellowship experience as nothing short of transformational.”
The Science & Technology Policy Fellowships began in 1973 with seven fellows supported by AAAS, the American Physical Society, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Today, the program is facilitated by AAAS in partnership with other supporting organizations and places more than 250 scientists each year across all three branches of the federal government, from senators’ offices to agencies including the Department of Agriculture and Department of Homeland Security.
In addition to selecting fellows and making placements at host offices, AAAS provides numerous professional development and networking opportunities, from the fall orientation to monthly trainings, special-interest affinity groups and a year-end summit. Many participants apply to extend their time in the program: Of this year’s 284 fellows, 122 are serving a second year.
In June, the program published results from the most comprehensive evaluation in its history, including survey responses from more than 1,200 alumni and more than 200 host-office mentors. The data highlighted the intensive and mutually beneficial nature of the fellowships.
On a ten-point scale representing their knowledge of how federal policy is formulated and implemented, as well as how to use science to develop more effective policies, fellows reported increasing from an average of 2.9 just before the fellowship to 6.5 just after. Meanwhile, 88% of mentors agreed or strongly agreed that fellows took on tasks or projects that would not have otherwise been completed.
The evaluation also showed how the program impacts fellows’ career trajectories. Many alumni become deeply embedded in the development of national or local science policy, whether they remain in the public sector or go on to work in academia, nonprofits or industry.
Forty-two percent of alumni take government jobs immediately following their fellowships. At some point after the fellowship, 76% advocate for specific policies, 54% work on science policy position papers and 49% hold leadership roles in professional organizations. Others write columns for media outlets, and 3% have run for political office.
Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist and professor of African American studies at Princeton University who has written three books on the intersection of emergent technologies and racial justice, opened her keynote address at the new fellows’ orientation by mentioning two dominant stories regarding the eventual societal impacts of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In the dystopian narrative, robots grow to dominate humanity, while in the utopian version, robots save us, making society more efficient and equitable.
“Although on the surface they seem like opposing stories, they share an underlying logic,” Benjamin said. “In both cases, technology is imagined to be in the driver’s seat. We are either helped or harmed by it, but the human agents behind the screen are often lost from view.”
Benjamin went on to discuss an example of the way policy decisions can affect the lives of vulnerable members of society: public benches around the world, from California to Finland, with armrests or other features that prevent people experiencing homelessness from lying down to sleep. As a social commentary on such single-occupancy designs, one German artist built a metered bench that releases spikes when its occupant’s paid sitting time expires. Ironically, though, some municipalities have now implemented the spiked design.
“Maybe we don’t actually build a bench — we don’t build a policy — but we inherit it,” Benjamin said. “We start a new position, let’s say, and someone hands us a spiked bench. What is our responsibility at that point, when we’ve inherited something with these built-in harms or exclusions? How do we work together…to actually ensure that our public space, our public policies are inclusive and just?”
In other presentations throughout the orientation, science policy experts delved into the nuances of the federal government, preparing fellows to take on diverse portfolios in their placement offices.
Georgia Lagoudas, a biological engineer who earned her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018, spent the 2019-20 fellowship year on the energy and environment team in the office of Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. In that position, Lagoudas helped draft a bill that aims to prevent methane leaks in oil and gas wells, contributed to the office’s coronavirus response and worked on follow-up initiatives related to the Green New Deal.
“It was definitely not a quiet year,” she said.
As a second-year fellow, Lagoudas now works on biosecurity through international treaty negotiations in the Department of State’s Office of Biological Policy Staff. She has found her experience as a research scientist conducive to success in the policy world.
“Last year, I was actually surprised how helpful it was to me — coming in with a mindset where I ask questions, I dig into things that need to be understood,” Lagoudas said. “This year, at the Department of State, I think I’ll use similar scientific training, but it will be exciting to use a little bit more of my bioengineering background.”
Thomas Boddie, a first-year fellow at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, earned his Ph.D. from Howard University’s biology department in 2019. In addition to his past research in parasitology, Boddie is passionate about science communication, diversity in STEM and health equity and grateful that the fellowship provides an opportunity to pursue those interests. He plans, for example, to take on a project analyzing data on the demographics of researchers working under grants from the National Institutes of Health.
“This fellowship allows me to use my scientific knowledge and background, but also the other parts of me that are really important to me,” he said. “I can bring myself as a scientist and a full person into my career path. That’s why I feel like this fellowship is the perfect place for me.”
“Coming from academia, you have an idea of what science policy is, but you really don’t have a really good grasp of it,” Boddie added. “I’m just really excited to learn about this world and to become a part of it.”
Applications for the 2021-22 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships are open until November 1. Visit aaas.org/STPF to learn more.