During graduate school, I became very interested in ethics and the social responsibilities of the scientist. After much soul-searching, I decided I wanted to work in a profession where I would be able to use my scientific expertise and have a positive impact on people's lives, but on a more rapid time scale than is permitted by academic research.
I was fortunate to be awarded a 2001 AAAS Congressional Fellowship and then a 2002 AAAS Diplomacy Fellowship, and to have interacted closely with talented people in both branches of government (the American Association for the Advancement of Science is the publisher of Science and Science's Next Wave). Contrary to the popularly held misconception that government is full of folks who couldn't or wouldn't make it elsewhere, the people I have met are incredibly smart, ambitious, passionate, and working hard to make a difference. I have been impressed and somewhat humbled by my interactions.
On the Hill
The AAAS Congressional Fellowships program places scientists and engineers on Capitol Hill ("the Hill," to locals), where fellows select House or Senate positions in either an elected representative's office or on a committee. As a congressional staff member, one's job is essentially threefold: to keep the congressional member that you work for informed about the particular issues in your portfolio, to identify new initiatives that will promote the member's legislative agenda, and to carry out as many of these initiatives as successfully as you can. You are essentially the member's eyes, ears, and occasionally his or her voice when it comes to the issues for which you are responsible. It is, therefore, very important that you identify a congressional member whose values you share.
Committees have a specific jurisdiction, so you are somewhat more likely to work on a related group of issues. As an example, if I had worked for a House or Senate committee on health, I would have been far less likely to be asked to work on the farm bill, but because I was in a member's office, I ended up working on both health and agriculture. Also, in general, fellows working for committees spend more time preparing for and attending hearings than do fellows working for personal offices because congressional committees are the organizations primarily responsible for holding hearings. Things on the Hill are fluid, so these differences are certainly not set in stone--and to further complicate things, there are House and Senate differences. However, you can expect that on average, the portfolio of issues you cover will be more focused while working for a committee than for a member's office.
Things move very quickly on the Hill, so you have a great deal of autonomy and freedom, and you are expected to be able to communicate clearly and succinctly. As is to be expected, you are constantly knee-deep in politics. I spent my days trying to keep up with the constant onslaught of information--similar to academic science, only I was reading newspapers and policy papers more than scientific journals. I came to realize that one of the most effective ways to stay informed was to talk to other staff members, advocacy groups, and interested constituents, and to share information constantly: The most important tool on the Hill is probably the telephone.
Like everyone else on the Hill, I was always trying to form an accurate picture of the political landscape for any particular issue, which was often very difficult, as things change quickly and issues may be highly nuanced. Fellows find themselves becoming generalists. I worked on issues as diverse as postpartum depression, cloning, mining reform, dietary supplements, and the farm bill.
Life as a Diplomacy Fellow
Most AAAS fellows do only one fellowship, but I wanted to gain additional policy experience. A year on the Hill flies by in an instant! I had received little exposure to international issues, and I wanted to work in an executive branch agency, so I applied for a diplomacy fellowship. The AAAS places diplomacy fellows in either the State Department, the Agency for International Development (USAID), or the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After interviewing with offices at both USAID and State, I selected a placement at USAID.
After several months as a diplomacy fellow, I think the following contrasts between working in the legislative and executive branches are the most striking and probably the most relevant. First, there is the role of politics. The politics on the Hill are fairly explicit: You know your boss's politics, as these guide your decisions, and you have a fairly good idea about the other members, given their voting records and party affiliation. In an executive agency, you must find a way to navigate the often-competing politics and priorities of the current Administration (the president and his advisers), the head of the agency, and your own specific boss or chain of oversight, depending on where your boss sits within the agency hierarchy. Agency politics are far more complex because they are less explicit, and there are many more layers of authority to consider.
Then there is the difference in structure between the legislative and executive branches. The legislative branch is far less hierarchical and bureaucratic. Things are more fluid on the Hill. As a congressional fellow, your work priorities are mostly a one-to-one reflection of those of your boss. You are given an almost frightening degree of freedom. You may be asked to represent your boss on an issue you know next to nothing about; if you screw up, there can be major consequences. In an executive-branch agency, things are far more systematic and defined. You have less authority because there are so many layers above you that need to sign off on what you do, but your area of scientific specialty is often more valued and more relevant to your work. Because your job responsibilities are fairly well defined, you can be somewhat more of a specialist, depending on your technical expertise.
Another major difference is in scope. The function of the legislative branch is to craft legislation at the federal level. Congress takes a largely macroscopic approach to problems. They are the domestic policy makers, and their focus is on the big picture and the broad brush strokes. The executive branch works on the detailed and concrete application of domestic policy. The State Department is an exception, as this executive- branch agency is largely responsible for the major policy arena outside of Congress's jurisdiction: foreign policy. Therefore, like Congress, the State Department is more focused at the macroscopic/policy level, although the bureaucracy factor tends to reduce the scope of any particular branch or unit.
Even time passes differently in the legislative and executive branches. On the Hill, things move extremely quickly and reactively. There is often little time for extensive planning or detailed explanations. Decisions must be made promptly, and information must be absorbed rapidly. Time typically moves more slowly in an executive agency, often to the consternation of those on Capitol Hill! There is more time in an agency to attend to details, plan for the future, and explore an issue in depth.
For both of my fellowship experiences, my background in science has been useful, but my particular field of specialized expertise is rarely relevant. I rely far more on my critical and analytical thinking skills, my ability to process complex information rapidly, and my ability to synthesize disparate pieces of information into a coherent whole. Although it is occasionally frustrating to think that I invested so much time in such a focused and now largely irrelevant domain, I know the skills I acquired during my Ph.D. have enabled me to get up to speed rapidly and be productive during my policy fellowships.
What I have found most satisfying about both of my fellowship experiences is that at the end of the day, I have the sense that the work I am doing will have an immediate and significant impact on people's lives. At the same time, this creates a significant responsibility because in the policy world, unlike academic research, you can't go back and simply repeat the experiment. I am proud to be entrusted with this responsibility and take it very seriously.
As for the future, I am definitely hooked on the idea of continuing to combine science and policy, although I haven't decided whether I want to work in government, academia, or the private sector. Wherever I end up, the AAAS fellowships have certainly had a big impact on my understanding of government function and the role a scientist can play in the world of policy. I recommend them to people who are interested in broadening their perspectives about how science can affect policy (and vice versa), working on a specific science policy issue, or making the transition into a career in science policy.
Melanie Leitner earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from Washington University in 2000 and was supported by predoctoral fellowships from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Lucille P. Markey Foundation. She was awarded a congressional fellowship by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2001-2002 and a AAAS Diplomacy Fellowship in 2002-2003.