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“You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.” These were the words my husband used to goad me into applying for a science policy fellowship, sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA), as part of my professional leave.
I am an educational psychologist with a long-standing interest in public education policy and the role of science in directing policy and funding. Still, I didn’t give the fellowship a second thought, mumbling something about the slim likelihood that a 46-year-old faculty member at a small regional state university would be selected. But my husband was persistent. I applied, was selected, and began a truly life-changing experience.
My interest in federal education policy led me to the education committee office of Senator Edward Kennedy, who chaired the Senate’s Labor and Human Resources Committee. Little did I expect that in less than two months, Senator Kennedy would relinquish the chair to Senator Nancy Kassebaum when the Republicans took control of the Senate. It was a sad day for the office, but in the end the change of fortunes and the staff reductions that followed provided me with opportunities to learn about the system I might not otherwise have had.
During my fellowship year, I worked on the reauthorization of the National Science Foundation, student financial aid, American Indian higher education, the education budget, and—most intensively—on a job training bill that was a joint effort of the senator’s education and labor offices. The Contract with America permeated every discussion that year—a regular reminder of the new congressional leadership—and job training, vouchers, and block granting were heated issues.
By the end of the year, I had become reasonably familiar with the legislative process and had come to appreciate the important roles of deliberation, negotiation, and compromise in policy-making. From my perspective as a scientist and educator, however, the most important lesson was that we, as scientists, do an incredibly poor job of telling our stories. We forget how to present the simple case, the clear graph, and the compelling picture. We talk too much and forget that communication is about both a speaker and a listener. In every way, this was the most important lesson and one that has followed me into the work I am doing today.
Shortly after returning to my faculty position, I was offered the first of several administrative appointments and today serve as the executive assistant to our president. It’s a position not unlike the one I held in the Kennedy office, which prepared me in many general ways for my current work: responding quickly to calls for data and analysis, writing concisely, synthesizing multiple views into a coherent story, speech-writing in another person’s voice and style, and negotiating in earnest. It also prepared me in a more specific way. Within the past six months, our university has begun a partnership with the state’s workforce training and education coordinating board, a group that resulted from the federal Workforce Investment Act, the final version of the job-training legislation which absorbed so much of my time and attention in1994-95. The AAAS/APA Congressional Science Fellowship was an experience that changed the course of my career and continues to inform my work.
By Elizabeth M. Street
Elizabeth M. Street served as an APA Congressional Science Fellow on the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources in 1994-95. She received an EdD in educational psychology at West Virginia University and is currently a full professor of psychology and executive assistant to the president at Central Washington University.
The sabbatical opportunities provided by the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Programs are outstanding. A year working in Washington, DC, at the interface of science and policy, offers many new experiences that translate successfully to an academic setting. The essay in this issue of Fellowship Focus provides one academic’s perspectives on the value of a fellowship as a sabbatical year. Look for the “faculty experiences” page on our Web site: www.fellowships.aaas.org, for additional first person essays by faculty members who have completed a policy fellowship.
Claudia J. Sturges
Director, AAAS Science And Technology Policy Fellowship Programs