As for many of the past 49 years, the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program ushered in a new class of policy fellows this month – and like last year, in the midst of the global pandemic, it was all online. Hundreds of policy fellows are inducted each year into a program that embeds all types of scientists and engineers throughout the three branches of federal government. They begin their journey with an intensive two-week orientation designed to prepare them for the intricacies and special knowledge required for government work.
STPF Director Rashada Alexander (2009-11 fellow at the National Institutes of Health) opened the event with a few “truth nuggets” for fellows. She told them that they are about to “learn a lot more stuff; you will make mistakes; and you will learn to recover from them.” She went on to say that fellows “will learn from a lot of folks who may not necessarily look like you, or have the same credentials, or the same experiences. You are going to want to tuck in and learn from those folks.” She reminded the fellows that they are wholly capable: “I don’t think any of you would have come here if you didn’t want a challenge. Keep this in mind: you’re here because you can do hard stuff, so get ready to do hard stuff.”
Fellows then heard from AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh who spoke about the difficulty of navigating a hyper-polarized landscape. “Part of the job of getting past [this divisiveness] is you – the fellows – building trust across lines,” he said. “I’m optimistic that there’s more room for [social and political] alignment than there is room for drawing boundaries. Part of the reason that the STPF program exists is to help create that alignment.”
Next on screen was Shirley Malcom, AAAS Senior Advisor to the CEO and Director of SEA Change, a program designed to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in STEMM fields in colleges and universities. “The opportunities to think about DEI are everywhere,” said Malcom. “Using the lens of DE and I, you will see them. And I hope that once you see them, that you can not unsee them.”
Participants reacted to her statements with great enthusiasm. This was one of the many instances in which participants could witness the interactive nature of the JUNO meeting platform. Participants had the ability to engage with speakers through emoticon buttons as well as a chat function. Fellows relied, often enthusiastically, on those buttons to register their reactions to presentations such as Malcom’s.
The 2021-22 fellowship class is comprised of 284 fellows sponsored by numerous entities including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Moore Foundation, and many partner societies. Of these, 29 will serve in Congress, one will serve at the Federal Judicial Center, and 254 – including one fellow serving a Roger Revelle Fellowship in Global Stewardship – in the executive branch among 19 federal agencies or departments.
Orientation sessions seek to address every major facet of working within the federal government, with a particular slant on doing so as engineers or scientists – including social scientists. Fellows are taught by leaders in their fields – ranging from the federal budget process and political history to inclusive leadership and seeking mentorship opportunities.
Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Science Advisor to the President Eric Lander thanked fellows for coming to Washington to spend a year of their career in federal government. He encouraged them to take advantage of their STEM-minded perspective, and to ask a lot of questions in their host offices as they might help spark better outcomes.
In “Science Policy vs. Science for Policy,” University of Michigan Professor Shobita Parthasarathy spoke about the process of science policymaking. It encompasses many forces such as facts, values, political culture, and political structure. She told attendees that their role as fellows is to help make more informed, reflective, and sensitive decisions that take into account not only facts, but also uncertainties and perspectives and voices that may be absent from the data or evidence.
Since the program’s inception in 1973, nearly 4,000 fellows have supported the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the U.S. government. After the fellowship, many fellows remain in the policy arena working at the federal, state, regional or international level. Others pursue careers in academia, industry or the nonprofit sector, leveraging their fellowship experiences to enhance their contributions and broaden their reach. Applications are accepted through November 1.