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STPF@50: Partner societies bring science to policy for half a century

A retrospective look at the start and growth of a national effort to bring more science and engineering expertise to Washington.

Collage of past STPF classes
STPF class photos through the years. | AAAS STPF


The idea that public policymaking is made better and complete with a consideration for scientific evidence was still new and not uniformly embraced back when the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) program launched 50 years ago. Since then, STPF has made great strides in a realm now widely known as science policy. 

Washington hasn’t been quite the same since 1973 when seven fellows moved to Capitol Hill as part of the inaugural class. “There were advantages to being just seven fellows,” said Richard Scribner, the now-retired AAAS staff member who was one of the chief architects of the fellowship, at the program’s 30th anniversary. “One was that you could always find a room to meet in – we used to joke that we could meet in a telephone booth.”  

The current class numbers 300 fellows, and the number of sponsoring professional societies has grown from the original four – AAAS, the American Physical Society (APS), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and IEEE – to more than two dozen.  

Scribner says he was brought to AAAS in 1971 to lead the office of public policy programs amongst a growing national ethos that professional societies should get involved in matters where Congress was making decisions without a lot of resources and expertise. Outside the walls of AAAS, scientific matters were increasing in visibility not only in Washington, but across America and the world. The 1957 launch of Russia’s sputnik satellite catalyzed the U.S. government to consider scientific expertise as a national priority, leading to the first moon landing in 1969 with Apollo 11. The year 1970 saw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as a AAAS-sponsored commission to examine the ecological and human impacts of herbicides, such as agent orange, being used by the U.S. military in Vietnam. The results led to a ban on their use and helped spur the creation of the Office of Technology Assessment to provide objective, nonpartisan analysis of issues concerning science and technology. As 1973 dawned, President Nixon abolished the White House Office of Science and Technology, and the country found itself embroiled in a familiar and circular debate as the Supreme Court ruled state laws banning abortion as unconstitutional. It was in this political environment that the first STPF fellows entered Capitol Hill.  

The first class of fellows left a lasting mark. STPF alumnus Michael Telson (1973-74 fellow in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources) later served as chief of staff at the House Budget Committee where he worked to promote scientific interests in the national budget. Jessica Tuchman Mathews (1973-74 fellow in the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs) went on to become the founding vice president and director of research at the World Resources Institute, later leading the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of International Peace, and now continues to serve on the governing board of Harvard University.  

More than 90 scientists and engineers applied to join the first STPF cohort and more than 100 members of Congress requested fellows, but funding was limited. Key initial funding came from Bill Golden, AAAS board member and treasurer. “Bill was a visionary,” Scribner said in an interview with AAAS for this story. 

Golden wasn’t the only visionary. Calls for bringing more scientific expertise to Washington also came from AAAS board member Richard Bolt, and AAAS committee member Joel Primack, who had a key role in the Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues – workshops that enabled students and faculty members from across the disciplines to study urgent social challenges. The workshops advanced a novel idea to launch a congressional intern program for young scientists and engineers. Members of Congress also called for some form of the fellowship, including Emilio Daddario, Morris Udall, Charles Mosher, and Mike McCormick.

In Scribner’s initial April 1973 program announcement in the pages of Science magazine, he wrote, “In no way does [the STPF program] mean that the scientific and engineering societies are promulgating the erroneous philosophy that ‘only science can save the world.’ However, science and technology are crucial elements in the consideration of many problems facing decision-makers.” 

With support from AAAS, partner societies, and Congress, the STPF program thrived. By 1983, the fellowship swelled to 47 fellows among 21 partnering scientific societies. In 2001, Switzerland launched their own national fellowship modeled after STPF, bringing two scientists to the Swiss Parliament. By 2003, the 30th STPF fellowship class was comprised of 100 scientists and engineers, with 26 partner societies and 10 sponsoring agencies. 2014 saw the STPF program receive the prestigious Public Service Award from the National Science Board in recognition of its efforts to bridge science and policy for more than 40 years.  

“It’s been just over a decade since I was a fellow,” said STPF Director Rashada Alexander (2009-11 fellow at the National Institutes of Health). “The value of having hands-on science policy experience has been incalculable at all of the government and nonprofit organizations where I have served. This program builds a cadre of ‘do-ers’ who are passionate about effective policy development and implementation, and we need them just as much in 2022 as in 1973.” 

Reflections from STPF founding societies  

Deborah Cooper, 2022 IEEE-USA President, said that the society is “honored to be a founding partner of the STPF program and considers it one of our most important initiatives. IEEE-USA was established in 1973 in large part to support our Government Fellowships program. Hundreds of IEEE-USA fellows have played crucial roles in guiding policymakers as our country and the world have undergone massive economic and societal transformations enabled by technology. We look forward to the next fifty years and beyond.”  

Cooper notes that America’s need for skilled, well-trained, experienced policy experts in STEM fields will increase as our reliance on technology and innovation continues to grow. Respected and nonpartisan programs like STPF will be essential as Congress and the Executive Branch handle whatever new innovations STEM professionals produce. 

As for STPF, broadening participation in science policy is very important to APS. The society says they plan to continue working to bring the fellowship opportunity to a wider community of physicists by focusing on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. To that end, APS is working with their Committee on Minorities in Physics as part of their 2023 fellow selection process.  

CEO Jonathan Bagger said, “APS sees great value in the STPF program. Former fellows immediately influence our public policy positions, and in their later careers, they bring an experienced voice to debates and decisions that affect both the physics community and the nation as a whole. Our opinion is shared by other science societies who recognize the impact on the larger science community…The program is so successful that in 2022, Congressional offices offered more than twice the number of positions than there were fellows available to fill them. We are proud to have been part of this program from its very beginning.”  

Tom Costabile, current ASME Executive Director/CEO, told AAAS, “Engineering is at the heart of solving the nation’s—and the world’s—greatest problems. There is no more important place for engineering’s voice to be heard than in Washington DC. The ASME Federal Government Fellows program embeds the best and brightest from our community in the federal government to ensure that engineering’s voice is represented in relevant policy discussions. We are grateful for the generous financial support of the ASME Foundation; for the behind-the-scenes work of ASME’s Government Relations team for coordinating the program; and for the leaders in Washington who welcome our fellows into their offices and agencies. Together, we truly are solving the world’s greatest problems.” 

Over the past 50 years, ASME says that about 130 engineering professionals have served as either legislative or executive fellows. Fellows report discovering a new passion for the “people” side of engineering, and a renewed excitement for leadership, advocacy, and decision-making skills after their year of service.  

Looking ahead 

After 50 years, the body of STPF alumni fellows is now more than 4,000 strong. Alexander is excited about the unique strengths of the alumni network and has a vision for what alumni fellows can continue to accomplish after their fellowships. She plans to launch a formal program for alumni next year.  

“When I became STPF director earlier this year, I asked myself, “What could make more sense than to build a path for those who have completed an STPF fellowship to continue serving as science policy leaders?” said Alexander.  

Her vision doesn’t stop there: Alexander also plans to bolster the program by bringing on more partner societies and putting more energy into fundraising to support additional fellows.  

Currently, financial gifts to the program are being combined with a $2 million match from Qualcomm Co-founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan. This will launch an endowment to provide sustained support to meet the demand for STPF fellows and boost policymakers’ access to scientific knowledge and promote evidence-based decision-making in the US. 

“I know there are folks out there who want to help prime the science policy pump,” she said. “A simple and proven way to do that is to help fund more fellows.”


Elyse DeFranco

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