Although science may seem to be underappreciated in D.C., demand in the federal government for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) expertise remains high.
Each September since 1973, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program has responded to this pressing need by bringing scientists and engineers to Washington for a yearlong placement.
In its simplest form, public policy aims to solve the problems of a group of people. Our problems are best solved when all potential impacts are considered and when evidence for the effectiveness of any given solution is provided.
Scientists and engineers understand data and can use their analytical skills across a wide range of issues. “The American people want a government that... responsibly addresses the problems that face this country. Policymakers must have good information on which to base their decisions,” concluded the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking last year. The law that created the commission was embraced on both sides of the aisle, because policy informed by evidence is a bipartisan value.
And policy needs to keep up with rapidly changing times. The Government Accountability Office reports that “emerging issues in science and technology, such as artificial intelligence and genome editing, will fundamentally alter lives … [and] the speed and scope of these technological developments likely will challenge the federal government’s and the Congress’ ability to assess program and policy implications in areas such as ethics, security, safety, privacy, and equity.”
Meanwhile, the government is finding it more difficult to recruit and retain STEM talent. In an effort to compete with the for-profit sector, the White House’s 2017 National Security Strategy stresses the need to increase incentives for recruiting technical talent and “create easier paths for the flow of scientists, engineers and technologists into and out of public service.”
Fellowships are highlighted as an important way to attract STEM professionals. And a recent National Academies study points to the importance of providing mechanisms for doctoral-level STEM professionals to learn about and transition to careers in a variety of sectors, including government.
The AAAS policy fellowships program works at bringing scientific talent to government. Numbering 270 strong this year, fellows from across the nation and at every career stage represent one of the largest classes in the history of the program.
They actively contribute to policymaking in Washington and provide nonpartisan scientific advice — “an important civic responsibility for the science community,” notes William Colglazier, former science and technology adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State.
These fellows directly help the government help society. As a Senate committee staff member, Chris Martin contributed to the writing and implementation of the 2011 America COMPETES Act, which equipped the National Science Foundation to fund research and train scientists.
When the State Department and Department of Energy used robotics to stabilize Chernobyl a decade after its nuclear accident, Maynard Holliday was on hand to provide technical expertise.
Christie Anne Canaria fostered the participation of small business and minority and disadvantaged companies in research and development at the National Cancer Institute and Anish Goel helped negotiate science and technology agreements with South Asian countries while at the State Department. These are just a few examples of how fellows have made substantial contributions in service to our nation.
The demand for science and engineering fellows continues to increase. Last year, congressional offices on both sides of the aisle requested nearly 100 fellows, roughly triple the number available for the legislative branch.
It’s clear that many legislators and career staff on Capitol Hill seek more scientific expertise and the fellows bring the knowledge and analytical skills required to address national imperatives from privacy to the opioid epidemic.
Policy cannot be crafted in a vacuum — evidence must be brought to bear. The American people benefit when policies include expert analysis of data and evidence-based solutions. Let’s bring more science to policy and more scientists to government.
Jennifer Pearl, Ph.D., is a mathematician and director of the science and technology policy fellowships at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).