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Science Policy Fellowship Has Durable Impact, Independent Evaluation Shows

The current group of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows posed for a photo in front of the U.S. Capitol during their orientation in September 2019. | Courtesy of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships

Scientists who spend time on staff in congressional offices, federal agencies or the judicial branch of the federal government through the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships report sharp increases to their understanding of policymaking and science’s role in it, according to the most comprehensive evaluation in the program’s 47-year history. Meanwhile, their host offices benefit from fellows taking on projects that would not have otherwise been completed, the new survey data show.

Following the fellowship, alumni continue to work at the intersection of science and policy. Many remain in government jobs, while others find different ways to contribute, such as writing position papers, incorporating their new perspectives in their academic research and teaching, leading professional organizations and running for political office.

“We have long assumed that this program is highly effective. The outcomes can be seen all around us 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 Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement for Science, which manages the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships. “Now, we have quantitative evidence.”

The Science & Technology Policy Fellowships began in 1973 with seven fellows supported by AAAS and a handful of other scientific societies. Still run by AAAS in partnership with other supporting organizations, the program now places more than 250 scientists each year across all three branches of the federal government, from congressional offices to agencies including the Department of Agriculture, National Institutes of Health and Department of Homeland Security.

In addition to selecting fellows and placing them at host offices, AAAS organizes professional development and networking sessions, including an intensive, two-week orientation each fall. The fellowships last one year, though many fellows apply and serve for a second year.

The new evaluation and strategic learning report, delivered to AAAS by the Goodman Research Group, an independent consultancy, was the first to attempt to include data on each of the program’s more than 3,400 alumni. The researchers received survey responses from 1,261 alumni and 235 host-office mentors. They also interviewed 24 alumni and 14 mentors. The participating alumni represented each fellowship year between 1973 and 2018, while the mentors were drawn from five recent years, 2013 through 2018.

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 increased from an average of 2.9 just before the fellowship to 6.5 just after. Ninety-one percent agreed or strongly agreed that their assignments — including participating in strategic planning, analyzing data and drafting briefing documents — enhanced their understanding of policymaking, while 89% were satisfied or very satisfied with the program overall.

“The learning just didn’t stop,” said one former fellow. “That was the cool part. It felt like drinking from a firehose.”

Another said that the experience “was one of the most educational years of my life.”

Reponses provided by mentors show that host offices, too, benefit greatly from the program, as fellows arrive with coveted expertise and initiative. Ninety-five percent of mentors agreed or strongly agreed that fellows’ contributions had a meaningful impact on the work of the office, and 88% agreed or strongly agreed that fellows took on tasks or projects that would not have been done otherwise. Seventy-seven percent said that they would be very likely to host another fellow.

The program also impacts fellows’ career trajectories. Many alumni become deeply embedded in the development of the nation’s 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% of those surveyed advocated for specific policies, 54% worked on science policy position papers and 49% held leadership roles in professional organizations. Others wrote columns for media outlets, and 3% even ran for political office.

“The STPF was the single-most valuable career experience I could have had as a looked to pivot away from academia,” said one former fellow. “My world opened in ways I could not have imagined.”

Though I returned to my academic career, I have kept my finger in the policy arena by serving on numerous advisory committees to the U.S., the state of New Jersey, and the city of New York,” said another.

Jennifer Pearl, director of the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, said that the new evaluation will help her team tell the story of the fellowships’ impact and identify areas to fine-tune. Aligned with a recommendation provided by the researchers to devote additional resources to maintaining and leveraging the national alumni network, for instance, the program is rolling out a six-month initiative to determine what kind of engagement opportunities alumni are most interested in.

“We constantly strive to use data to improve the fellowship experience for fellows and partners,” Pearl said. “The results and perspectives from this retrospective survey are invaluable.”