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Andrew Roberts

Andrew Roberts
Science & Technology Policy Fellowships

2005-07 Risk Policy Fellow at U.S. Department of Agriculture

In the early 1990s, Dr. James Watson was touring the lecture circuit promoting the benefit to mankind of a science project on a mammoth scale – the human genome project. I was a middle-schooler lucky enough to see Dr. Watson at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan (past bedtime and on a school night no less). In retrospect, Watson was talking about what would now be considered very basic biology: the structure of a gene, how DNA contains the information to build all the proteins in the human body, and the breathtaking medical potential that this “blueprint” would hold. Although I had always been interested in science, this is my first memory of the terrific sense of excitement that many scientists will recognize and associate with their chosen field. This was something I wanted to be a part of. After that night, there was never any doubt that I would be a molecular biologist.

Flash forward to late 2005, more than a decade of education later, and I am a graduate student preparing to defend my thesis in Cell and Developmental Biology… and I have a problem. Surprisingly, my thesis is not the problem; like the human genome project it was a difficult undertaking that somehow finished ahead of schedule. My problem is more complex. I am about to earn a Ph.D. and I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it. My enthusiasm for science hasn’t waned, but I no longer feel that same excitement when I head into the lab, and I’m not convinced that an academic career writing grants and managing students is where I want to be. What still does interest me is talking about science, exploring the ramifications of technology and looking at the interaction between scientific research and the public. Enter the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program. A post-doc friend had pointed out an ad for the policy fellowships in the back of an issue of Science a few years earlier, and I had decided I would apply when I completed my degree. Long story short, I applied, was accepted, and began another experience that would change my life.

My AAAS fellowship placement is with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services (APHIS-BRS). BRS regulates the movement and environmental release of genetically engineered plants. As a regulatory agency, BRS deals with highly technical issues, consults heavily with a regulated community of research scientists in both industry and academia, and communicates widely with the public and other stakeholders on the nature of biotech regulations. In my time here I have had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects, from the development of peer review policies for APHIS to international efforts to harmonize biotechnology regulations through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In addition to attending and sometimes organizing meetings and workshops in the D.C. area, I have traveled to Norway for a workshop on salmon biology and Canada to outline a consensus document on environmental considerations for risk assessment. Last September I attended the 9th International Symposium on the Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms in Korea.

Most importantly, I have had the opportunity to develop and use a variety of skills every day that I rarely found use for in the laboratory. Communications skills are at a premium, and how you say something can be more important than what you say. The ability to present technical information to a non-technical audience is highly valued, especially when combined with the need to show a sufficient mastery of the issues to have credibility with the research community. Although I rarely talk about my laboratory work, and I haven’t mentioned the title of my thesis to anyone in well over a year, my graduate work is an asset every day. In addition to providing a common ground for discussions with technical experts, the fundamental scientific concepts learned and re-learned through years of practical experience are often very relevant to the immediate needs of regulators and policy makers. Without a doubt, experience in reading and writing scientific papers has been invaluable in helping interpret the science that informs my agency.

The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program provides a unique opportunity for scientists, at any stage in their careers, to get experience in public policy. One of the highlights of the fellowship is the chance to get to know, personally and professionally, a group of scientists with a variety of technical backgrounds and interests who all share an interest in science policy. AAAS recognizes this and facilitates a variety of social activities for new and continuing Fellows. Also, as my experience and responsibilities have grown, I have been very pleased to find myself interacting increasingly in a professional capacity with other Fellows, in both interagency discussions and international arenas. In addition to providing you with an entry into the world of public policy and a network of colleagues, the fellowship program also provides a variety of professional development events throughout the fellowship year, which can help you with everything from job hunting to “managing up.”

For me, the fellowship program represents not a course change but a continuation of my scientific career. I have come to realize that when Jim Watson unknowingly inspired me to pursue a career in science he was actively engaged in a discussion, not just of academic science, but also of public policy.