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Science & Technology Policy Fellows Prepare for a Challenge in Washington

A group of people sitting at tables watch and applaud a speaker who is not pictured
First-year fellows participated in a whirlwind two-week orientation. | Isabella Lucy/AAAS

This fall, the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program is sending 271 scientists and engineers to work for a year in the federal government. The program’s goal of contributing scientific expertise to federal policy is timelier than ever, its organizers say.

The newest class of fellows – the 46th in the program’s history – enter the federal government at “an exciting time and a challenging time,” said Jennifer Pearl, director of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program, on Sept. 4 during the fellows’ two-week orientation.

The fellows begin their new roles amid concerns about the relevance of science to government, Pearl said. The administration, for instance, took a year and a half to nominate a director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Kelvin Droegemeier’s eventual nomination was applauded by AAAS, leading scientists and other scientific organizations. At the same time, Pearl noted that the role of federal scientific advisory boards has been diminished.

Even though “the appreciation of science in Washington is being debated,” many offices have long recognized the importance of scientific expertise in government, Pearl said, with the demand for S&T policy fellows higher than ever before. In recent years, requests from congressional offices for policy fellows have outpaced by more than double the number of fellows available.

In addition to 33 congressional fellows, the 2018-2019 class of fellows includes 237 who will work in the executive branch’s federal agencies – including, for the first time, a placement at the Census Bureau ahead of the 2020 census. Since the addition of a judicial branch fellow in 2014, fellows have worked in all three branches of government; this year, one fellow will work at the Federal Judicial Center, the judicial branch’s research and education agency. This year’s class — supported by the government, AAAS and dozens of partner scientific and engineering societies — includes 158 first-year fellows and 113 who renewed their fellowships for a second year.

The fellowship program, which has embedded more than 3,000 fellows in the federal government throughout its history, has two key aims, Pearl noted. STPF serves as a professional development opportunity for fellows, opening doors and bolstering their skills whether they continue to work in the policy realm or return to research, and leverages the fellows’ scientific expertise to benefit federal policy, Pearl said. Offices that have hosted fellows also report benefitting from their hard work and the fresh perspectives they bring to their new positions, she noted.

Pearl reiterated the point in a Sept. 13 editorial published by The Hill. “It’s clear that many legislators and career staff on Capitol Hill seek more scientific expertise and the fellows bring the knowledge and analytical skills required to address national imperatives from privacy to the opioid epidemic,” she wrote. Pearl cited the White House’s 2017 National Security Strategy, which emphasizes the importance of recruiting scientists and engineers into the federal government.

To best prepare the fellows for their service, first-year fellows attended a two-week orientation where they learned about the history, structure and processes of the federal government directly from the experts. For instance, Lloyd Whitman, principal assistant director of physical science and engineering at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, shared with fellows the role of the office and the importance of scientific advice for the president, and Senior U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein explained the current role of science in the judiciary.

Fellows also tried their hands at writing talking points and drafting an appropriations bill – hands on exercises that allowed them to practice adapting their analytical abilities and problem-solving skills for a new environment, one that operates much differently from what they have previously experienced. For incoming fellow Karna Desai, who recently completed his Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Indiana, the most valuable part of the orientation was learning the specifics of how policy is formulated.

Desai, who will work in the National Science Foundation’s Transdisciplinary Research in Principles of Data Science program, said he was struck by AAAS CEO Rush Holt’s advice about the importance of learning about the government through immersion.

Holt offered his perspective to the fellows as both an alumnus of the program and a policymaker, having represented the 12th congressional district of New Jersey for eight terms. One of the largest problems facing our society and our government, Holt said, is the “cheapening of evidence, the erosion in the appreciation of science.”

Holt urged fellows to take advantage of “the opportunity to point out to people you’re working with where science enters the issue and where evidence can be brought to bear.”

[Associated image: Isabella Lucy/AAAS]