A Matter of Policy

In early 2005, Joseph Helble, a chemical engineer, entered the legislative fast lane. A few weeks earlier, the most powerful tsunami in decades had swept across Southeast Asia. Senator Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT) wanted to know why that region lacked a tsunami warning system. So the senator turned to Helble, who was serving in Lieberman’s office as a Roger Revelle Global Stewardship Fellow. Each year, that fellowship sends one mid-career scientist or engineer to a government office or nonprofit organization to work on global environmental policy.

“I walked out of [Lieberman’s] office figuring, okay, now I need to figure out how to do this,” Helble says. The next few weeks were “incredibly hectic.” Helble quickly studied tsunami warning systems. He spoke with “everyone and anyone” who worked on tsunami warning technology and consolidated his findings into a memo and presented it to Lieberman, who decided on the spot to sponsor a bill that would fund a $30 million system. Soon after, Helble found himself answering questions at a press conference called by Lieberman to announce the legislation.

“It’s not the sort of thing you’re prepared to do in academic work,” Helble says, “but it was very illuminating how quickly things can get done when [a legislator] is committed to it.”

Each year, several hundred scientists and engineers flood Capitol Hill and executive branch agencies in Washington, D.C., to get a taste of policy work. From 10-week get-your-feet-wet programs for graduate students to multiyear stints for tenured faculty members, scientists and engineers enjoy plenty of opportunities to explore science policy as a career path or as a means to broaden their knowledge and skills.

After their stints in Washington, D.C., scientists and engineers head in one of three directions, says Cynthia Robinson, director of Science and Technology Policy Fellowships at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science and Science Careers) in Washington, D.C.: They go back to academia, they stay in the policy world, or they decide to do something completely different.

Helble decided to return to academic life, becoming dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. As an administrator, he constantly draws on his Washington, D.C., experience. “The skills I learned are directly transferable,” he says.

Savvy scientists

“Our goal is to have more policy-savvy scientists out there in the world,” said Robinson. “We believe that’s of value whether they stay in government, go back to academia, or go on to the private sector or to a nonprofit organization.” Policy fellowships are also “a two-way street,” she says, where legislators and government agencies benefit from the fellows’ scientific and technical expertise.

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Like Helble, about a quarter of all AAAS fellows return to universities or take other nonpolicy jobs. But almost half get “Potomac fever” and decide to stay in the policy world, either as a return fellow or as a full-time employee at their fellowship agency, at a different government office, or at an outside organization.

Saharah Moon Chapotin is one such fellow. She earned a Ph.D. in plant physiology from Harvard University but “kind of knew” she’d never become a professor. She first tried the 10-week Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program offered by the U.S. National Academies. Chapotin enjoyed working in Washington, D.C., so she applied for and won an AAAS policy fellowship, which lasts 1 year with a second often available. Chapotin is in her second year at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where she enjoys the “big picture” view that working on biotechnology safety issues provides–a view she never had in the lab. Chapotin is hoping to stay at USAID permanently to shepherd the projects she’s been working on, such as a technology-exchange program with West African cotton breeders.

While Chapotin is working on policies related to her degree, many fellows find themselves treading unfamiliar ground. Katherine Seley-Radtke, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), spent a year at the U.S. State Department as a Jefferson Science Fellow, a program for tenured faculty members. Jefferson fellows typically spend a year full-time at the State Department and then serve as informal advisers for 5 more years. Seley-Radtke was sent to Moscow as a scientist-diplomat to keep tabs on turmoil in the Russian Academy of Sciences. She soon found herself tasked with briefing top U.S. embassy officials on Russia’s new nanotechnology initiative. As an organic chemist, Seley-Radtke wasn’t an expert on nanotechnology. “But I certainly am now,” she says.

As scientists, the Jefferson fellows “know how to go find the right information,” Seley-Radtke says. And then they have to turn around and communicate that information to career diplomats and other nonscientists. As information “goes up the ladder, you certainly don’t want the wrong information getting to the people who make policy decisions,” she says. “You don’t want the secretary saying the wrong thing. So you need to understand the technical details of a particular problem, even if it’s not in your area, and then relate key points in a nontechnical way.”

Taking it home

Over and over, former and current fellows emphasized written and oral communication skills as keys to success in the policy world. “The kind of writing you do, the quick memos, it’s so different than writing grant proposals and papers,” said Seley-Radtke, who returned to her lab at UMBC but continues to advise the State Department on bioweapon threats.

Helble added that learning how to negotiate on Capitol Hill with “people with a broad range of dearly held opinions” has served him well as a university administrator. Also, he says, “the time scale in academic life is very different. When an issue comes up [on Capitol Hill], you need to digest it, understand the science and the ramifications of the science, and put it together in a coherent one-page memo–and do that all within an hour.” At a university, a similar project might drag on for months.

In her keynote address at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, Massachusetss, in February, Nina Fedoroff, the State Department’s top science adviser, emphasized the growing importance of policy-savvy scientists. She highlighted Alex Dehgan, a former AAAS science policy fellow at the State Department who persuaded former Iraqi weapons scientists to help rebuild their country. Dehgan, a behavioral ecologist and conservation biologist, also persuaded journal publishers to offer discount subscriptions to Iraqi scientists.

Fedoroff would like to see more scientists and engineers get involved in international relations. “The idea of serving as a science diplomat is only now getting on the radar screen of the average engineer and scientist,” said Fedoroff. “But now is the time for scientists to stop going back to business as usual.”

After his time in Washington, Helble, too, would like to see more of his colleagues take a similar path. “Look at all the issues–climate change, stem cell research, general environmental issues, health care, energy–that all have a fundamental scientific or engineering basis. And we complain that these decisions are being made in a vacuum without significant scientific or engineering input. Well, the way to fix that is for scientists and engineers to get involved in the policy process.”

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