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Science & Technology Policy Fellows Prepare for Cultural Shift

Urmila Ghia, a Legislative Branch Fellow sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati, poses a question about translating science to inform policy. | Kat Song/AAAS

For AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows, making the transition from science to the world of federal policy can require a shift in thinking and adjusting to new norms, not to mention shifts in geography and work environments.

Heather Spence, a behavioral neuroscientist specializing in the auditory environments of marine animals, was swimming with dolphins in Cancún for her research just a few days before beginning last week’s orientation for this year’s STPF fellows. Now, she is focused on learning more about policy and is looking forward to her post at the Department of Energy, where she will help develop tidal energy technologies.

While she knows she will benefit from joining the STPF network, which now includes more than 3,000 alumni, and will have good mentors, Spence acknowledged it is hard to know exactly what her fellowship will bring. “I think the best things I’ll get out of this fellowship are probably things I can’t even imagine right now, the things I don’t know I don’t know,” she said.

During her welcoming address, STPF Director Jennifer Pearl told the 183 new fellows they were brave to have left the science realm that they’re comfortable with to take this step. And, as they make this transition, Pearl cautioned the new fellows to be aware of how the realms of politics and science differ in their goals, time frames, incentives and other areas. For instance, the goals of science are to seek truth over long periods of time, she said, versus those of politics, which seek compromises to serve policy goals in the short term. However, it is precisely because fellows do not have the typical Washington political mindset that they are valued, she said.

“Surveys of mentors tell us fellows are valued very much for the fresh perspective and energy they bring to the table,” said Pearl.

AAAS CEO Rush Holt, a physicist, former member of Congress and an STPF alumnus, underscored the differences in the realms. He recalled that one of the speakers during his own STPF orientation decades ago said, “In politics, facts are negotiable.” And while some of the current new fellows expressed concern about today’s political climate being “anti-science,” Holt said the problem was just an intensification of an old problem.

“What has been eroding for some decades … is an appreciation for the fundamental idea of science: that answering questions empirically and verifiably is something that benefits everyone in every aspect of their lives,” and that public issues are best addressed using evidence, Holt said.

He urged the fellows to use their seat at the table during their fellowships to advocate for using science in policymaking. In many agencies and offices, “you will be the only one at the table who will bring [a scientific] perspective,” Holt said.

In addition to the new fellows, the 45th class of STPF also includes 91 second-year fellows and four overseas fellows. Thirty-six fellows will be working in congressional offices, and the remaining fellows will be working in 21 executive and judicial branch agencies.

The agencies hosting the largest numbers of STPF are the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of State, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy.

Rada Dagher, a new fellow who will be working at the NIH’s National Institute of Minority Health Disparities, said she is looking forward to being exposed to new scientific areas, building new collaborations with policymakers and getting more involved in the policy making process. Dagher’s research has focused on many socially-relevant topics, including the effects of maternity leave on new mothers’ mental health and ability to breastfeed and access to medical care for people of different races/ethnicities and income levels.

“I always wanted to do research that can be translated into policy …but in academia, you don’t get exposed a lot to policymaking,” Dagher said. “It’s already my first week and I’m so fascinated.”

Daniel Sanchez has a background in engineering and public policy and recently completed a post-doc investigating how technologies that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere can be made commercially viable. As a congressional fellow, his office selection process won’t occur until after orientation, but he hopes he will be able to advance energy and climate issues.

“Finding small ways to move forward — that’s what I’m looking forward to getting out of my year,” Sanchez said. “I see policy making not as a one-year slog, but making changes over 10 years.”

[Associated image: Kat Song/AAAS]