Time Out: Policy Training Can Improve Mentoring

For some faculty members, taking a year away from their research can be an invaluable opportunity to learn new skills, develop valuable contacts, and experience life outside academia. That certainly was the case for Ann Kinzig, a junior faculty member in urban ecology at Arizona State University (ASU), who spent the 1998-99 academic year in Washington, D.C., as a Roger Revelle Fellow in Global Stewardship.

The position is one of 80 to 100 awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS's) public policy fellowship program (see box). Each year, fellows are chosen for one of eight fellowship programs to learn, upon arrival in D.C., how government works, the major issues relating to science, and how policy is made. After completing the yearlong program, some fellows remain in policy, while others use the program as a transition to a new career. But just how useful are such programs for those who are planning to stay in academia?

If Kinzig is any example, participating in the fellowship was extremely useful: The program has increased her resources for mentoring, shaped what she does with her scientific information, and helped clarify her role as a scientist in the political world around us. Now back in Arizona, her academic career is flourishing, and she's still reaping the rewards of her experience, as are her students.

Claudia Sturges, director of the AAAS public policy programs, agrees that such opportunities enable scientists and engineers to learn how policy is made. It is an opportunity to "learn by doing, not by watching," she emphasizes. At the heart of the program is the work the fellows do in a government department or agency--using their scientific expertise to help inform policy-makers. Kinzig, for example, worked in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy ( see box) helping to distill academic science into policy-relevant information.

There are eight AAAS Policy fellowship programs:

  • Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship Program

  • Roger Revelle Fellowship in Global Stewardship

  • AAAS/NSF Science and Engineering Fellowship Program

  • Science, Engineering, and Diplomacy Fellowship Program

  • Risk Policy Science and Engineering Fellowship Program

  • Defense Policy Science and Engineering Fellowship Program

  • Environmental Science and Engineering Fellowship Program

  • Technology Policy Science and Engineering Fellowship Program

In fall 2001, two more programs will be offered, enabling fellows to work in the National Institutes of Health and in the Justice Department.

Each of the programs requires a separate application. In addition, a large number of scientific societies sponsor fellows; those also require separate applications. Links for all of the applications can be found on the AAAS Web site.

The minimum qualification for the fellowships is a Ph.D. (or equivalent doctorate such as an M.D. or DVM), or a master's in engineering plus 3 years experience. All applicants must be U.S. citizens. Mid- and late-career applicants are encouraged to apply.

All fellowships are for 1 year initially, but many of them can be renewed for a second year, except for the congressional fellowships and the Roger Revelle fellowship. Fellows can use the second year to move to a new office or project, although it must be within the original department.

Application deadline is 10 January 2001.

Web site: fellowships.aaas.org

Kinzig has always been interested in the application of scientific information in this way, but like many researchers, Kinzig wondered if academia was really right for her, or if she would be happier working someplace where the goals were more immediate. She also realized that if she did stay in academics, the fellowship would enable her to be a more effective mentor, because she would have broadened her own professional experiences. "I think that there are a lot of advisers out there who suffer from a failure of imagination in two ways: One, they can't imagine a life outside of academics; and two, if they can imagine a life outside of academics, they don't have the resources or information required to help their students find that place." The AAAS fellowship gives people "the information they need to serve as a better adviser for other students or colleagues going through the same [decision-making process]," she says.

The timing

While finishing her postdoctoral work at Princeton, Kinzig applied for the AAAS policy fellowship and for faculty jobs. She accepted the Revelle fellowship when it was offered; 2 weeks later, Jim Collins, the chair of the biology department at ASU, called to offer her a faculty position. Kinzig steadied herself for one of two possible responses she thought Collins would give when he found out she was heading for D.C.: Either the offer would be withdrawn, or (if she was lucky) he would postpone her starting date by a year. Instead, much to her surprise, he offered her an immediate appointment, allowing her to go on leave for her first year at ASU, reap a higher salary than the fellowship stipend alone, and have access to ASU's benefits program.

"Not only was this an opportunity to help a younger faculty member, but it was also a selfish move on my part," says Collins. "It was in my interest to have her as a faculty member, allied with the institution, so that she would begin to feel a sense of ownership as far as the institution was concerned." His university has been developing closer ties to policy-makers for some time--the biology department, for example, has an undergraduate emphasis called Biology and Society, a goal of which is to create better informed policy-makers. Having a faculty member in D.C. working as a policy fellow would lend credence to this program, and it would also provide a faculty member with whom undergraduates in the program could meet while in Washington. According to Collins, "the full value of Kinzig's fellowship is yet to be seen," but he definitely thinks the time spent in D.C. is valuable both for her and for the department.

The benefits

From Kinzig's point of view, her experience in Washington was great. "I gained a much deeper appreciation for how policy is made in this country. There is no short or easy method. You come out of high school thinking that a bill becomes a law in a rather recipelike way; that people sit down and hash out details with a lot of time on their hands." The reality is much different. Unlike science, where the data alone drive the conclusions, in policy there are many other factors that have to be weighed. "You end up compromising a lot because of all different agendas, and it is all done quickly because no one has a lot of time." But Kinzig emphasizes that "the process works remarkably well because of how informed people are in both the scientific and social issues."

"I now understand that you can just go knock on doors," comments Kinzig. "I think a lot of scientists ... don't think to do that or think they will just wait until someone calls them. But you don't have to wait. You can create some opportunities yourself." And she thinks this isn't just relevant for policy issues but for media contacts, public education, and even scientific collaborations. The most important task, believes Kinzig, is to find the most appropriate place to participate in such programs--it needn't be inside D.C.'s Beltway or on Capitol Hill. Learning about government and policy can easily be achieved at your local council or governing boards, she suggests.

It's clear that although Kinzig has been on the ASU campus for just 1 year, she has already become a valuable mentor for students in the department, not least because of her experiences as a Revelle fellow. She has concrete information about opportunities in Washington and knows about specific policy issues, for example. She says graduate students in the department appreciate her sound advice, as well as introductions to her networking contacts in Washington. Kinzig's first graduate student--attracted to the wider-than-usual view of possibilities for a Ph.D. education--opted to join her lab next fall.

Kinzig's scientific career also seems to be benefiting from the Washington experience: She was awarded the prestigious Aldo Leopold Leadership fellowship for communicating environmental science more effectively to policy-makers, and she is helping to organize an interdisciplinary National Science Foundation (NSF) meeting. Collins suggests that such faculty experiences have been a factor in the department's success in getting program grants. Also, having faculty members involved in policy means that high-profile policy-makers come to the university to interact with faculty and students, believes Collins--U.S. Representative Matt Salmon (R) from Arizona, for example, recently visited the university. "It adds a whole other dimension to their undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral experience," says Collins, "and adds a richness to the department that I think would be lacking if we weren't doing these kinds of things."

But after all is said and done, the most important result of Kinzig's time in Washington is that she is settled where she is. "I gained a greater appreciation of academic life," says Kinzig, "and I gained an appreciation of the life in Washington, D.C. Now I have a much better basis for comparing the two lives. I am not ruling out someday leaving academics and doing something else. But for now I am content to be here."


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