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Q&A with Cynthia Robinson


At a time when many of their colleagues are headed back into classrooms and laboratories, a select group of scientists and engineers are going to Washington.

The 44th class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows reported to offices in Congress, in various executive branch departments and other federal offices in September. The roughly 260 people will be getting a firsthand look at how the United States crafts public policy, and will spend the next year pitching in to help their host agencies address the issues of the day. When they return, they’ll be part of a network of more than 3,000 former fellows who are applying what they learned in the corridors of power in a wide variety of fields.

Cynthia Robinson is the director of the S&T Policy Fellowship program at AAAS. She talked with MemberCentral about its work as the new fellows were packing for D.C.


Q: How has the fellowship program changed since you’ve been working with it?

Robinson: I came on 12 years ago. Just a few years before that, fellowship classes had hit more than 100 new fellows coming in every year. We have more than doubled the size of the program. Last year we had more than 280 fellows.

One of the most exciting things is we’ve launched into having fellowships in the judicial branch. We only have one a year so far, but we’re hoping that will possibly expand in the future. It’s at the Federal Judicial Center, the center that focuses on research and policy issues that affect the courts and other judicial matters. The fellow the first year was working on international patent law issues.

The other thing that’s been exciting over this time is a number of other fellowships have been created that have been modeled on the Science & Technology Policy Fellowship. There are now state fellowships modeled at least in part on our program in Massachusetts, California, and Texas. There is a program in Switzerland now that’s modeled on this program. There’s a program now in the ASEAN region in Asia on this model, and one in Canada and Israel as well. It’s nice to see that a program that is successfully engaging scientists and engineers in policy in a really immersive, embedded model is being recognized as a really valuable way to get science and technological information to policymakers and regulators.

Q: There’s probably no way to pigeonhole a “typical” fellow, but can you describe a little bit about who they tend to be in terms of career path or status? Are there some disciplines that are more common than others?

Robinson: We take individuals from all disciplinary backgrounds: social and behavioral, as well as biological, physical, computational, geosciences and all fields of engineering. Historically, we have tended to have more life and biological sciences background, but we do cover all. The age range of the fellows ranges from just out of a doctoral program right up to individuals who are very senior in their careers – in their 60s and 70s sometimes, which is something I think is unique about this program.

There are many great fellowship programs in Washington. Many of them are focused on one particular discipline, or one particular issue or set of issues, and they're often only at early career stages. Our fellowship program covers all career stages. But that said, the majority of our fellows are within five years out of a doctoral degree.

Q: Are there any fields that you would want to see more represented that maybe would help with an emerging issue that we're going to have to deal with in the future?

Robinson: The demand from the hosting offices really guides how the placements are made. They’re always looking for more individuals who have more social-behavioral backgrounds, more engineering backgrounds and health-medical backgrounds, because there are a lot of issues that deal with those. It really depends on the agency or the office and their specific area of focus. Certainly, there have been a lot of fellows in the last 10 years who have come in with backgrounds in renewable energy and that kind of thing. A number of years ago, nanotechnology was a big new focus and a lot of the offices were looking for people who had backgrounds in that. And certainly, right now, knowledge of big data and data issues and data science.

The S&T Policy Fellowship is an immersive, embedded program. Fellows are in the trenches in that host office, in either the executive, legislative or judicial branch. They often have portfolios and assignments and issues that they're working on. But what's great about this kind of model is that when something happens –  the headline of the day, you know, an earthquake somewhere, a financial crisis in the world, Zika, other kinds of global challenges –  fellows are in the agencies and offices to help deal with those on an immediate basis.

Q: You’re in the middle of the application process now. What can a candidate expect from the selection process?

Robinson: Our deadline is November 1, and every year that is our deadline. We do several rounds of review with first-round readers and then selection committees. If candidates make it to the semi-interview stage, after the initial reviews, they’ll be invited for a 30-minute interview with a selection committee. And if they pass through that process, then they become finalists.

Those who are finalists for the executive branch will actually come to Washington D.C. for a week and interview with a different hosting office – the different federal offices that want to take fellows. They basically go through the interview process again with those different offices, and then those offices will let AAAS know which of the finalists they would like to host.

This year we have about 260 fellows – 160 new ones coming in for the first time, and about 100 more renewing for a second year. That’s an option for the executive branch only. The reason is that the government agencies and offices are paying for the fellows. They’ve made an adjustment for one year, and many of them find that in the second year, they’re able to get more contributions from the fellow. They’re now up to speed, they know the lingo, they know the issues, they know the networks, they understand how procedures work and the culture of the different agencies or offices where they’re placed. In the second year, they not only can contribute more, but they also get an opportunity to learn a lot more when they’re deeper into the issues and the projects they’ve been asked to engage in.

On the congressional side, it doesn’t happen that way, because it is the different scientific and engineering societies that are funding the salaries. And we all want to spread our limited nonprofit dollars as far as we can. So we support them for one year, and then we look for new people to engage in the program.

Q: And what kind of adjustments will they face in their first days in Washington?

Robinson: Well, I certainly hear a variety of things. First of all, just getting used to the D.C. lingo can be challenging for folks. Every office has their own set of acronyms, nevermind the broader policy world. I think for folks who are coming from academia – and about three-quarters of the new fellows coming in each year are coming out of academia – have to adjust their writing. A briefing for members of Congress, or even an executive agency, isn’t a 10-page paper. It’s often one, and in Congress, it might be one paragraph or just three bullet points. So it’s a real adjustment from the perspective of how much information has to distill down into very, very precise points.

Another thing is the time frame, the pace. You don't have the leisure of researching things for days or years, and then coming up with a solid paper. You’ve got a certain amount of time, and you have to get the best information you can in that time period and provide the best briefing points that you can, understanding that you don't have all the information. But that's the pace the decisions are made at, at the policy level.

I think for some fellows, depending on what field they come from and career points, just the wardrobe might be an adjustment. (Laughs) Yes indeed, scientists and engineers can wear suits.

Q: Once somebody has gone through one of these fellowships, how do they apply what they’ve learned to the next steps of their career?

Robinson: One of the great things about this program is that it highlights for scientists and engineers in many different career paths that are open to them with the kind of training that they get. Certainly some fellows come from academia and might go back into academia. Or they go to work for nonprofits. Some of them decide that they feel like working in the government, whether it be the federal government or they might go on to state or international positions that have to do with science policy or governance. We’ve had fellows who go on to work for foundations. We’ve had a number of fellows at the Gates Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and others. And of course, many scientists and engineers might go on into a private sector position.

So I think many scholars find that there are many doors open to them that they didn't even know to pursue because of the experience they gained, because of the networks they gain, and a broader understanding of how science and technology connects with society through policy.

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