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From Ph.D. to Policy Wonk: AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships


Looking to take on the Washington, D.C., political scene with your science know-how? Tired of listening to all of those so-called "experts" spout off incorrect stats on Meet the Press? Ever wonder how you, as a politically savvy scientist or engineer, could get your foot in the door at a federal agency or Congress?

Wonder no more! The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publisher of Science's Next Wave) offers nine different Science and Technology Policy Fellowships for people just like you who want to experience the interface of science and policy first-hand.

The Programs

The oldest, and perhaps the most widely known, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship is the Congressional Fellows Program. Congressional Fellows work on Capitol Hill for a year as legislative assistants to members of Congress or congressional committees, advising them on scientific issues while learning about the policy-making process.

Although AAAS selects only two Congressional Fellows each year, some 30 other professional societies participate in this program, each sponsoring their own fellow (see AAAS's Web site for a list of participating societies).

The other 1-year AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships place scientists and engineers at federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). If your interests are broad, you can apply for several of the fellowships. But if you're especially interested in environmental policy, you'll definitely want to take a look at two fellowships in particular: the Roger Revelle Fellowship in Global Stewardship and the Environmental Fellows Program.

Revelle Fellows can choose to work in Congress or at a federal or nongovernmental agency in Washington, D.C., where their activities will typically focus on international or domestic issues relating to environmental sustainability. Revelle Fellows must have more extensive prior experience than other fellows, and only one applicant is selected each year (see sidebar for eligibility details). Environmental Fellows are based at the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) headquarters in D.C. As many as 10 Environmental Fellows are selected each year to learn how policy decisions are made at the EPA. AAAS Fellows working in federal agencies may stay on for a second year, if the fellow and supervisor agree that this is a good idea.

Who Applies for These Fellowships?

The AAAS Fellowships attract seasoned science policy types, as well as scientists straight from the lab bench. Susan Euling, now employed as a biologist with the EPA's National Center for Environmental Assessment, found the Environmental Fellows Program to be the perfect way to combine her love of the environment with her laboratory training as a postdoc in developmental biology. As a fellow for two terms (1997 until 1999), Euling assessed the cumulative risk of various toxic agents on development and studied whether certain chemicals in the environment influence the timing of puberty. She went to meetings, analyzed documents, and wrote summaries in the course of her fellowship duties. Switching career paths was stressful for Euling, but she was "excited for a change" in her work. Sure, she admits missing some things about bench science, like being the one making the discoveries, but in her fellowship and in her current job at the EPA, Euling is now the one analyzing the data for their global implications and applying this knowledge to real situations.

An experienced policy veteran, Terry Keating, now employed as an environmental scientist in EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, has always been involved at the science/policy interface. From the time he was an undergraduate and on through his graduate and postdoctoral training, Keating immersed himself in environmental policy issues on the local, state, and international levels. The AAAS Environmental Fellowship offered Keating the "opportunity to fill in that missing gap of understanding what goes on at the national level." In particular, as a fellow from 1998-2000, he organized and attended meetings, helped write parts of agency documents, and gave science and policy advice on air quality issues and on international activities of the EPA.

Lean on Me ...

At the beginning of the fellowship, Keating was in awe of the other fellows he met despite all his previous policy experience. All AAAS Fellows attend a 2-week orientation program introducing them to the way the government works. "That's one of the best parts of the fellowship," Keating says, "and one of the most intimidating things, too." On the first day, everyone introduces themselves to the rest of the group and describes their background. "These people have just done incredible things," says Keating. "They have so much experience ... it's a really great group of people." Euling agrees that the orientation is a key part of the experience. She says it makes for a "very supportive situation to come into. That's why it's such a successful program."

AAAS Fellowships: The Details

  • Eligibility

    For all AAAS Fellowships, applicants must have received their Ph.D. degrees before the 10 January deadline. The only exception is for engineers, who may have a master's degree plus 3 years of postgraduate experience. Additional experience is required for Revelle Fellows--applicants for this fellowship must have a Ph.D. and 3 years of postgraduate experience; engineers may have a master's degree and 6 years of experience. Applicants must be U.S. citizens.

  • Funds

    The stipend for the 2001-2002 fellowship year is $53,000. Fellowships are only for 1 year, but fellows at executive branch agencies have the option to renew the fellowship for an additional year. The number of selected awardees varies, depending on the particular fellowship.

  • Deadlines

    All eligibility requirements must be met by the application deadline, which is 10 January of each year. All fellowships begin the following September.

  • For more information see the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Web site.

AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows also organize their own seminar series and social events throughout the year, giving them a chance to maintain friendships and build important professional networks with fellows working in other agencies and in Congress. In fact, Keating says, "It's actually really fun. Very early in the fellowship, I got a chance to sit down and talk with people who were Congressional Fellows--we could kind of rely on each other for getting up to speed on different topics." For example, one of the fellows in Keating's "class" worked on a Senate staff and had been a physical chemist before coming to D.C. Out of the blue, she was assigned to investigate an air pollution issue that she knew very little about. Looking for a primer on this unfamiliar topic, says Keating, "she called me up knowing that I 'did' air pollution." Keating has also called on his colleagues for advice, and he continues to keep in touch with many of the fellows.

Tips for Prospective Applicants

Although the AAAS Environmental Fellowship provides a rich first-hand experience of life in the policy world, there are a few things prospective applicants should keep in mind. Both Euling and Keating say that applying knowledge to real-world problems is one of the great benefits of the fellowship, but Keating has a word of caution for those applicants looking to jump back into academia after their year at EPA. He says that publishing scholarly papers is not the main focus of the agency, so staying competitive for academic jobs can be difficult. The timing can also be a bit harried--the AAAS Fellowship is for 1 year, renewable only if the fellow and his supervisors wish to prolong the fellowship period by another year. Given the long process for landing an academic position, if you are thinking you might want to head in that direction, you would need to start sending out your applications as soon as your fellowship begins.

As for practical tips, Euling suggests that scientists interested in policy "talk to people--either current fellows or individuals who have the kind of job you would be looking for down the road." Not only can prospective applicants get excellent advice by conducting these kinds of informational interviews, but they might also identify a mentor this way. Euling stresses that as a scientist, you should "target your transferable skills. Understand that the analytical skills you have from being trained as a Ph.D. [are] rare; they're valuable." Helpful hints indeed, no matter what kind of career you wish to pursue!

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