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Science policy fellows: Ripples outside the Beltway

The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships Program recently was honored for "exemplary public service in promoting public understanding of science and engineering." In its citation, the National Science Board noted that AAAS has given "over 2,500 scientists and engineers the opportunity to work in congressional offices or with federal agencies, learning about policymaking and contributing their skills and insights." 

As a former AAAS staff and selection committee member, I've had the privilege of working with AAAS Fellows and even mentoring a few. Sometimes lost in the narrative about the program is what happens after the one to two-year fellowship. Does the program prepare fellows for life beyond the mecca of policymaking, Washington, D.C.? I would posit that the program offers important lessons about both engaging and disengaging from a career.

New fellows typically arrive with naiveté about their role in the bureaucracy. Despite their discipline, determination and commitment to the public good—as well as the resources that AAAS provides (including a systematic, months-long introduction to the policy infrastructure of the federal government)—fellows seem to think that their technical background will make them instant policy mavens. Lacking basic knowledge of how a federal department or agency works—hierarchically and incrementally—they become frustrated. Their insights are not necessarily embraced or implemented. Many have difficulty putting their egos aside and eschewing individual credit. The anonymity of shaping policy is the opposite of academic culture, which rewards individual distinction.      

Once they adjust to policy culture (including that of their specific agency post), however, most enrich the organizations they have joined as fellows and to which they often are recruited as staff, and eventually, as leaders. Then what?  

Historically, half of the alumni of the AAAS S&T Policy Fellows program have opted for public service in Washington, D.C.—a spectacular return on investment in talent to government and other knowledge-driven sectors of the U.S. economy.  

For those who choose to leave the mecca of science policymaking and return to the nether regions of the country, their former Washington colleagues can have a short memory. This is hardly peculiar to policy staff. Like university presidents who step away, they can feel as if they have "no official identity whatsoever."  This is a kind of disengagement.

Two weekends ago at the 6th Conference on Understanding Interventions That Broaden Participation in Research Careers, I observed an antidote to policymaking disengagement. Two Washington "old hands," with aggregated experience at NSF, NIH and NASA, keynoted the final plenary session. Liberated from their leadership positions, they spoke candidly about images of scientists, biases brought to peer review, and strategies for sponsors to re-examine their processes and effect different outcomes that influence careers. They were more than engaged: They brought wisdom and perspective, and occasioned a thought generalizable to Policy Fellows nearer the "other end" of their careers.  

Outside the cocoon of Washington, one's conversance with the policy infrastructure remains an asset—and one that doesn't deteriorate. But the policy alumni must market their value to those so consumed by day-by-day demands that their perspective is blurred. Who then is myopic and who could use of dose of reality from another place? 

My advice to alumni of the AAAS Policy Fellowships is to:

- maintain a network of colleagues (more specialized than LinkedIn) who cherish what you know regardless of what they or you do now;

- continue to speak and publish on national issues as they impact your local community (research-based advocacy is a challenging but much-needed vocation); and

participate in venues that demand interaction with others not policy savvy, but who can benefit from "insider" interpretations of federal process and outcome

Through your actions, remind folks that policy can be practiced whatever the context or the politics, and that former AAAS S&T Policy Fellows never lose their policy edge.

  • Interested in a AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship? Join our chat June 11 and 25 and ask current and alumni fellows as well as AAAS staff your questions.