Taking Federal Policy Know-how to Another Level
Moving the skills one develops as a Science & Technology Policy Fellow from the federal to state or local level comes almost naturally. Alumni fellows are embedded throughout the country bringing science to public life and policy.
Hopkins announces the publication of the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan. | Ben Walsh
Currently at Synapse Energy Economics in Cambridge MA, Asa Hopkins, 2010-2011 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of Energy (DOE), was until recently the director of energy policy and planning at the Vermont Department of Public Service.
Hopkins relished the fact that work at the state level goes on at a much smaller scale than at the federal level. “It’s also much closer to the action. Ideal solutions meet reality, and sometimes survive,” he said. “Vermont is small enough that you can get the people who will make the decisions into a room around a table – whether they are business leaders, elected officials, activists, or a mix of all of the above.”
As for landing a job in local government, he says the credibility he gained as a scientist and a fellow at DOE was key to success in his position. “Getting a science Ph.D. can be great training in project management which is a valued skill in a lean government agency.”
The STPF fellowship is life-changing and gives you a skill set that is difficult to acquire anywhere else. ~Roberta Downing
Roberta Downing’s 2004-05 Legislative Branch Fellowship sponsored by the American Psychological Association had a clear impact on her career. “My fellowship led to a position working as a health care staffer in the Senate, which led to several other federal policy-oriented positions. Those years since my fellowship have contributed to the skill set that allows me to do my current job in state government.”
As director of federal relations for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Downing is in touch with programs ranging from Medicaid to foster care. “I work on many of the same policy issues as those that I worked on as a fellow. We work to ensure that our congressional delegation has all the information they need when making policy decisions. And Members of Congress use our analyses to understand the ramifications of federal policy decisions on our state.”
Roberta finds that state government provides more opportunity to “change things for the better and do work that affects [her] immediate community.”
Rancho Cordova, CA Council Member David Sander, 1996-1998 Legislative Branch Fellow sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology, did not plan a career in politics. “It was an accident. I was appointed to a county commission in an area that was seeking to incorporate as a city. In the process of incorporation, I was heavily recruited to run for city council. The residents voted to incorporate and chose me for city council.” Since that fateful day in 2003, he has served as council member ever since, and as mayor for three of those years.
Sander feels gratified by his experience in local government and characterizes it as truly accountable: “If you don’t fix the pothole or plow the snow,” elected officials hear about it. Another upside of local government is that you encounter fewer partisan issues: “potholes aren’t liberal or conservative,” he said.
“People often ask me ‘How do your two jobs fit together, as a scientist and as an elected official?’ I joke that the two have nothing to do with each other – one is logical and data-driven and the other is not. But the reality is the skills of a scientist applied to any public policy issue can yield great results. We scientists pose hypotheses, ask hard questions, gather data, do rigorous analysis, weigh outcomes and draw conclusions…. In the accountable world of local government, the skills of a scientist can be invaluable.”
David Wunsch, 1998-1999 Legislative Branch Fellow sponsored by American Geological Institute, is the state geologist of Delaware. The policy side of his duties –defending his agency’s budget, testifying, monitoring legislation, etc. – is similar to his experience as a fellow in Congress.
“My fellowship helped tremendously,” he said. “For example, I believe I am much more effective in the legislative arena because of my [fellowship] experience. I understand very precisely the missions of many federal agencies with whom I interact with on a regular basis. I also made many professional contacts in DC with whom I still interact to this day.”
James Nachbaur, a 2012-2014 Executive Branch Fellow at the DOE, leads the Division of Recycling for the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. Moving to the Bay Area in part to be closer to family, he sought a position in state government in order to focus on sustainability for his home state. “My fellowship experience made me better at connecting with people; working with complex systems; synthesizing details, data and diverse views; refining analytical structures; and thinking strategically and creatively about forces and interactions in related to natural resource issues,” he said.
John Dawson, 2008-2010 Executive Branch Fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is a permit engineer for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “It might not quite be as “boots-on-the-ground” as a compliance inspector, but it’s close.”
On how his fellowship has impacted his career, he said, “Since part of working for a state regulatory agency requires dealing with federal regulators and interpreting federal rules, I think having experience at EPA (as a fellow, then as an employee) was a big plus in the eyes of the people who hired me. Also, I made connections across government that I still make the most of today. It’s easy for me to pick up the phone and call someone at EPA when I have a question.”
Peter Ashcroft wasn’t homing in on a career in state government. He was drawn to the Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development for the opportunity to work on a broad spectrum of interesting and important energy policy issues. As a senior policy analyst, he enjoys “plenty of variety.”
His 2005-06 AAAS Legislative Branch Fellowship in the U.S. Senate was the kickstart to a new career path. “The fellowship gave me hands-on policy experience to complement my academic training,” Ashcroft said.
David Wunsch had some career advice: “State government jobs have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, salaries are often slightly less than comparable jobs in the private sector, but benefits such as vacation, health insurance, and retirement programs are typically better. Job security is probably better in state government (unless you are a political appointee), but you often have less opportunities to be entrepreneurial.”
Considering a career in local government? Check out this article from GovLoop: 13 Tips for Finding State And Local Government Jobs.