Write on!

What do fellows do? Let’s talk about agency reports.

While they do a great many things, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows often contribute to writing reports as part of their fellowships. There are similarities between federal reports and academic and scientific writing, but fellows find that the formats, review processes and report goals often differ. Most are written to share information both within and outside an agency, often to spur new approaches.

Amy Paul, a public health policy researcher and 2016-18 Executive Branch Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Global Development Lab recently co-wrote a report with colleagues in the Lab’s Center for Digital Development about systems that are used to identify people by governments and aid programs, such as identity cards. It investigated the existing technologies (like RFID and biometrics) in use as well as new ones (such as blockchain), and explored some of the privacy and other concerns that are raised by using various systems.

“Technology changes very quickly, and instead of being reactive, we want to plan ahead and understand the risks and limitations of these options,” Paul said. The level of writing and length were driven by a desire to be concise and clear. “I think a report is the first thing you produce to put your ideas on paper, and you might have more products that come out of that,” such as practical tools or checklists with questions to ask vendors.

The team used a graphic design team to help make it look distinctive. Finally, came the thorough review and clearance process. The report was reviewed by each office whose projects were mentioned to “ensure it was technically accurate and consistent with everyone’s policies,” Paul said.

Joan Aron, 2008-2010 Executive Branch Fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) within the Office of the Science Advisor, wrote an agency-published report as a contractor after her fellowship ended. It describes how maintaining a healthy ecosystem helps maintain good water quality, because land-based changes, such as erosion and loss of vegetation lead to increased levels of pollutants in water. Aron had already co-written an article about the topic for a policy journal after her fellowship, and EPA wanted to spread the idea more broadly among agencies, nonprofits and private individuals who manage lands.

“It requires a collaborative approach,” since those who manage lands are usually not the same people responsible for meeting water quality goals, Aron said. She found collaboration was also a key to writing reports or other products at EPA. “It’s not just going off on your own and writing something – usually you’re part of a team. Even if you’re the lead, you need to pull together what the different divisions or team members say,” so good communication is key, Aron said.

While the goals, hours and budget for the report were determined in her contract, she still had to do some research to determine what information and examples would be included. She also had to navigate some sensitive issues such as restrictions on using examples from tribal communities who act to maintain ownership of their data, she said.

Marguerite Matthews, a health scientist and a 2016-18 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Institutes of Health, is the lead editor of an investigation into how long it takes early career researchers to get initial NIH funding, as well as subsequent grants necessary to become established researchers, and whether gender and race disparities have persisted. Unlike Paul’s and Aron’s reports, Matthews’ team is planning to submit the paper to an academic journal for publication, since the research is in response to a previous study. The team also wants the paper to be peer reviewed and join other papers being cited regarding the same issues.

Matthews said report writing can be “a really cool opportunity to work with people outside your office,” within your agency and outside of it. “Depending on the nature of the report, it may be a great opportunity to see how other people are doing things, branch out a little bit,” and make new connections.