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Deborah Olster

Deborah Olster
Science & Technology Policy Fellowships

2000-02 NSF Science and Engineering Fellow at the National Science Foundation

Yes I was a tenured, full professor at a “Research 1″ university, in a location considered paradise by many- Santa Barbara, CA. I wanted to use my scientific skills to have a broader impact in society, but hadn’t yet figured out how. When I spotted an ad for the AAAS/NSF Science and Engineering Fellowship, I applied and was delighted to have been selected! In September 2000, I began my assignment at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. Having expended a great deal of effort over the years to get NSF funding, I was eager to be inside the agency that supports basic research and education in all scientific fields.

The most important lesson I learned during my fellowship year was that the capabilities that brought me success as a university instructor and bench scientist were, in fact, applicable to other arenas. Gathering, analyzing, and organizing information in ways that allow you to communicate with different audiences is immensely valuable. Working collaboratively, planning ahead, defining goals and developing mechanisms to achieve them are useful skills for any career. I became less of a reductionist and began thinking more broadly. I learned the importance of many scientific disciplines in government policy.

My work at NSF was primarily in program development, but I did some policy, too. Program development involves identifying research foci that could benefit from support, and devising a funding mechanism that would most effectively advance the science in that area. You have to be cognizant of cutting-edge research, set long-term goals and think creatively about how to accomplish them. As a neuroscientist on the faculty of a psychology department, I had learned a lot from my behavioral and social science colleagues and could communicate biological principles to many different audiences. This was critical in crafting new NSF research programs in cognitive neuroscience and the science of learning.

My policy-related work included participation in an inter-agency working group on the protection of human subjects in research. I rubbed elbows with a very interesting cross-cut of the federal agencies. The working group was convened by the National Science and Technology Council of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This issue was receiving a lot of attention, particularly in light of the recent deaths of two participants in biomedical experiments. NSF-funded research involving human subjects is in the behavioral and social sciences, which although predominantly of minimal risk, is still governed by many of the same federal regulations as biomedical research. Policy work is alternately frustrating, fascinating – and difficult – as you have to consider numerous perspectives and carefully balance competing, valid demands. I gained a new respect for those who do it full time.

Coming to Washington with 95 other Fellows was fun. They were scattered all around Congress and different executive branch agencies, and it was invigorating to be among a group of enthusiastic scientists of all ages and from different fields. I made new friends, crammed in sight-seeing and culture, and ate my way around town. I liked it so much, both personally and professionally, that by January, I started applying for jobs in and around the District of Columbia. I am now a Senior Advisor in the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at the National Institutes of Health where I sit at the intersection of the biomedical, behavioral and social sciences, developing new research and training initiatives, and doing some policy work. Oh, and that tenured professorship in paradise? I resigned.