Young Science Policy Professionals: Building a New Community

People working in science and technology policy don?t form a community as much as they form a large extended family that occasionally shares holiday letters or attends family reunions. I was reminded of that this spring, when a graduate student conference I helped organize (with colleagues from George Mason University, George Washington University, and Virginia Tech) was combined with a workshop for rising science and technology (S&T) policy professionals sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, which also publishes Science?s Next Wave).

The resulting event, The Local and the Global: Workshop for the Rising Generation of Science, Engineering, and Technology Policy Professionals--a family reunion, if you will--took place at the AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., on 12 to 14 April. The 120 people in attendance came from different backgrounds, but everyone had an interest in S&T policy.

Why should this matter to graduate students in the sciences and engineering? Many of the people involved in S&T policy are either new science and engineering Ph.D.s or senior researchers who entered the field because of personal interest and/or administrative experience. However, many involved in the policy arena (particularly those who hold the purse strings) do not have a scientific or technical background. I?m one of those people.

The closest thing I have to scientific training is my undergraduate minor in astronomy. Although I am not a scientist or engineer, I join many others who have as much to contribute to S&T policy as the chemistry Ph.D. who is just getting started working on Capitol Hill or in any other institution involved in policy. One thing we share, however, is that we can learn from and support each other. The workshop was one such opportunity.

I wasn?t sure if combining our two events would work. Last year, each drew very different populations. Most of the graduate students who attended last year?s conference were enrolled in academic programs in S&T studies or policy. Many of the people who attended last year?s AAAS workshop were scientists forging a new path toward policy or programmatic careers (engineers and technology policy practitioners were scarce both this year and last).

Workshop participants expressed mixed reactions to this new combination. Some felt the change was fine and others felt it helped blur the distinction between the academic and career paths. But some felt it diluted the focus on one or the other.

Such issues came to mind during remarks by Daryl Chubin, senior vice president for policy and research at the National Action Coalition for Minorities in Engineering, and Shirley Malcom, director of the AAAS Directorate for Education and Human Resources. As they described their paths to S&T policy, I was reminded that people come to this field from very different places. Chubin and Malcom interact easily, in part because they have had many shared experiences in their years of service. S&T policy is full of people who have jumped across boundaries and fought institutional pressures.

Boundary jumping is tough and lonely work. It?s hard for a field biologist, for example, to come to Washington in search of science policy opportunities that might suit her interests and talents. Finding help and support may well depend on knowing somebody who is "in the loop." Similarly, a policy person trying to find government work can be stymied by institutions that are biased toward people with technical degrees. It does no good if our extended family is mired in such squabbles, but keeping to ourselves is just as bad.

The workshop organizers tried to promote the meeting to anyone who could be a "rising professional" in S&T policy. We sought out those interested in pursuing a policy career or an academic career in S&T policy, or those simply wishing to better inform their own disciplines. Policy professionals addressed the group on the challenges of S&T policy and practice. Norm Neureiter, an adviser to the Secretary of State, spoke on the international dimension of S&T policy and how to get involved in the field. Scholars addressed the group on issues that emerge from the interaction of science, technology, and society.

As is often the case, the most engaging discussions of the weekend took place during the question-and-answer sessions and in the lobbies. The opening reception was well attended and a great opportunity for networking. The student paper panels covered diverse topics, such as the politics of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program and the influence of the U.S. president?s science adviser on policy and the security implications of technology integration. One moderator commented that the panels he ran were some of the best he had ever observed.

There were also promising discussions about developing a membership society and journal for rising S&T policy professionals and on what scientists and policy-makers can learn from one another. These conversations may foster some kind of lasting network for our loosely knit community.

The workshop planners succeeded in getting people in the field with different backgrounds talking to each other. We believed it was important for people with policy backgrounds to stay connected with those working in science and technology. They have experiences and insights that can help me, as a policy person, understand why some constituencies respond to policies as they do. Likewise, individuals with policy backgrounds can help others understand the vagaries of public policy. The initial learning curve in this field is very steep, so having mentors and peers available for advice and support is invaluable. This combined workshop, which I would like to see happen every year, can be an event that helps to develop and nurture such a network.

After reviewing the participant feedback, it?s clear to me that the professionals involved in the science and engineering policy communities are looking for different things, some of them contradictory. Although it is hard to be all things to all people, the workshop must make the effort to serve the broadest interests of the field. To do otherwise risks losing those who don?t neatly fit the accepted categories in the field. These folks have something valuable to contribute, so excluding them is not acceptable.

David Bruggeman is a Ph.D. student in science and technology studies at Virginia Tech?s Northern Virginia Center and a Research Assistant at the National Academies. He welcomes your comments on his article; write him at

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