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STEM experts get schooled in civics, Beltway life and all things policy

STPF orientation for the 51st class of fellows

A classic behind-the-scenes shot at that annual class photo ritual at the Capitol. | Kanan Patel/AAAS
A classic behind-the-scenes shot at that annual class photo ritual at the Capitol. | Kanan Patel/AAAS

As in most every other September for the past 50 years, scientists and engineers from across the country gathered in Washington to do a deep dive into the workings of US government. The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program hosted its annual orientation for members of the 51st cohort of policy fellows to provide them with world-class learning on science in and for policy and in-person networking before they report to the federal agencies and offices in all three branches of government. They will gain practical policy experience and contribute a science-informed approach to tackling policy issues over the next year.

From Sept. 1-13, fellows met new faces with similar aspirations and learned side by side. Sessions ranged from the nuts-and-bolts – such as an overview of the federal government and how to deliver scientific evidence to decision-makers – to sessions to hone soft skills such as “Office Culture and Communication” and “The Impact of Inclusive Leadership.”  

“Is it okay to say, ‘I do not know’ when given a question?” asked one participant in “Science Policy vs Policy for Science; What It Is, What It Isn't, and Who's Involved,” taught by Georgetown University professor and Department of Defense veteran Dr. Carol Kuntz. This question highlights a classic lesson that new fellows – often more accustomed to environments that call for quantitative (near) certainty – will learn over the course of their fellowship year. (Short answer: yes and add that you will look into the issue and get back to the questioner.) 

This year’s class of policy fellows comprises 276 highly trained STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professionals sponsored by organizations including AAAS, the Moore Foundation and partner societies. Thirty-eight fellows will serve in Congress, one will serve at the Federal Judicial Center, and 237 will serve in the executive branch among 19 federal agencies or departments. New this year, among the 38 fellows in Congress, six are members of AAAS’ inaugural Rapid Response Cohort in AI – experts in artificial intelligence and related areas recruited to help confront pressing issues such as privacy, intellectual property rights, employment, and innovation in the field.  

The STPF program supports evidence-based policymaking by leveraging the knowledge and analytical mindset of science and engineering experts, and trains leaders for a strong U.S. science and technology enterprise. Fellows represent a vast array of disciplines, backgrounds and career stages. The array of backgrounds matched the breadth of expertise and experience amongst orientation speakers. 

With thousands of influential alumni of the STPF program across the world in every sector, alumni fellows are perennial features on the roster of expert speakers at orientation. The program was particularly honored to have Science Advisor to the President Arati Prabhakar (1984-85 STPF fellow at the Office of Technology Assessment) address the fellows. She provided a window into her thinking and plans for the work of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Her office advises on the role science and technology (S&T) plays and the direction it takes in society – no small matter. Quite simply, S&T is integral to shaping the future. She reminded the audience that science enables us to ask (and answer) the question, what kind of future do we want to build? The nation's aspirations have never been as large and momentous as they are now, she said. Prabhakar looks to an S&T enterprise that solves big problems while ensuring a future that is equitable, resilient and ambitious. 

To maximize her time engaging with fellows one-to-one, Prahakar devoted half of the session to fielding questions. She asked fellows to give her rapid fire questions that she took more than one at a time to answer with a wealth of accumulated wisdom.  

It is no small feat for a large group of scientists and engineers to pick up their lives, move to Washington, and dedicate one to two years to public service. But with great sacrifice comes life-changing benefits. Said one fellow, “Meeting so many brilliant and passionate people, who are all going to be tackling some big issues (climate change, AI, etc.) has given me a much-needed, healthy dose of optimism!” 

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Kat Song

Senior Marketing & Communications Manager

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