At the Junction of Science and Policy

James Stith, D.Ed.
Vice President of the Physics Resources Center


I graduated from the University of Virginia with a doctorate in biophysics but with little intention of seeking a postdoctoral position and with a modest concept of what other career options were available to me. I had been educated and trained to do one thing: research. Although I had a vague idea of areas that interested me, science policy included, I was not willing to pursue another degree. I needed to figure out what to do with the one I had!

As a result of a discussion with a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator, I applied for, and eventually accepted, a job running the Research Training Fellowships for Medical Students program at HHMI. This fellowship program allows medical students to take a year off from school to do research. As I became acclimated to my new environment, I came to appreciate the value of my work and regarded it as a contribution to science. I realized that I shared the interest and enthusiasm of the fellowship applicants and their mentors for the proposed research projects and their desire to do good science. It also helped that we had an enthusiastic review panel; its members valued their own contributions to the program. I was satisfied with what I was doing but began to think about my long-term goals. I read widely and saw more of the complexity of science policy. I decided that I wanted to understand, firsthand, how science-funding priorities are established on a national level. The AAAS/National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship program has placed me where I want to be--at the junction of science and policy.

In my discussions with past AAAS fellows, I learned that the fellowship year would provide an opportunity for a unique experience that would enable me to learn directly from knowledgeable co-workers. I would be responsible for shaping my own comprehension of public policy, for which gaining insight into NSF's decision-making processes on the programmatic and institutional level has been critical. I have a lot to learn, but I am beginning to understand how science and engineering policy informs critical societal concerns such as national security, health care, and the environment.

I work in the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs ( OLPA), part of the NSF director's office. My fellowship term consists of three 4-month rotations with the Issues Development, Media Relations and Public Information, and Congressional Affairs sections of OLPA. Before the year is complete, my duties will include writing speeches, congressional testimony, and press releases and making visits to several universities.

The adventure of my position lies in the fact that I don't always know what will happen next. As a staff member in this office, I must acquire knowledge of the foundation's history, programs, and initiatives as well as keep abreast of contemporary issues, current funded research activity, and proceedings on Capitol Hill. I have learned about climate and epidemiology, biocomplexity, marine biotechnology, infrastructure development, education ... and I expect this list to grow.

I arrived at NSF with some interests of my own. Specifically, I wanted to learn more about establishing priorities for science initiatives in regions that traditionally do not receive significant science funding. I have pursued this interest with the guidance of staff from the program office for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which was authorized in 1978 to aid the development of states' science and technology resources. This program allows each eligible state the flexibility to capitalize on its individual strengths, resources, and circumstances to build its scientific capacity. The aim is to help those states become more successful in competing for funding from NSF and other federal agencies.

Although a primary focus of EPSCoR is to enable strong research and education programs and expand the states' technological capacity, the economic impacts are also of interest. As my career progresses after my term at NSF, I am anxious to learn more about how science and technology help feed lasting economic prosperity. I want to develop and implement policies that facilitate the contribution of science and engineering to social and economic progress. Given the global nature of science and economics, I expect my focus will easily expand to include multiple national and international issues.

During my fellowship year, I am developing new skills that I can use wherever I go. I have a new appreciation of the peer-review process and of NSF's relationships with other executive-branch agencies and Congress. Furthermore, I have gained experience in preparing effective oral and written presentations that are essential to convey policy positions and concerns. Finally, I have seen the necessity and difficulty of explaining the content and value of science to the public. Before I began this year, I could only imagine what I would get out of this fellowship experience, but I have not been disappointed. And although I have chosen to become a policy wonk when I grow up, I believe that anyone can find value in the fellowship experience--and you can enjoy yourself as you do it!

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