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Scientists, Engineers Needed to Help Guide Federal Policy Development


The following article represents the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Commerce or the U.S. Government.

In the 21st century, scientific and technological leadership is more vital than ever in maintaining U.S. competitiveness, ensuring our national defense and homeland security, protecting our environment, creating high-wage jobs, and advancing the quality of our lives. Accordingly, many science and technology (S&T) issues have moved to the forefront of policy and to the front page--literally--in the press. This creates a new imperative for U.S. scientists and engineers to engage in public policy.

Historically, federally funded research and development (R&D) have brought us substantial economic and social benefits. R&D provide a powerful knowledge base for private-sector innovation and significantly influence development paths for industrial technology. Policy-makers are often called upon to make crucial decisions about the allocation of scarce R&D resources; the education and training of young scientists; and the management of technologies with ethical, religious, and cultural significance. None of these decisions can be made well without the participation of those with technical expertise. But when important decisions are made in Washington, D.C., scientists and engineers are rarely at the table.

What Scientists and Engineers Can Contribute

As scientists and engineers, you can provide policy-makers with a clearer understanding of emerging technologies and their current and potential applications. The increasing technical complexity of each discipline and the convergence of multiple scientific and technical disciplines (such as nano-, bio-, information, and cognitive sciences and technologies) are beyond the comprehension of most policy-makers without the counsel of a scientist or engineer. The goal is not to make technical experts out of policy-makers but to provide the sound S&T grounding they need to make good decisions.

You can provide firsthand knowledge of what drives people to pursue careers in science and engineering, what enables them to succeed, how research is managed in laboratory settings, and the challenges faced at the bench and in the management of research.

And those of you with management and/or entrepreneurial experience can offer policy-makers insights into the technical and business challenges of transferring potentially profitable research out of the lab and into the marketplace.

Current Issues and Topics in Science and Engineering Policy

Scientists and engineers can advise policy-makers on a wide range of issues, including:

  • Federal R&D issues. What is the economic and social potential of emerging S&T areas? How can technology help create the future we want? What is the appropriate aggregate level for federal R&D spending? Which disciplines should we fund and through which agencies? Should spending be directed at missions, competitiveness, or the pursuit of knowledge? Big science, Grand Challenges, or investigator-driven research? Who should do the work--industry, academia, or federal labs? What is the appropriate and most effective role for the federal government to play in supporting R&D?

  • Science and Engineering Workforce Issues. Is the current infrastructure adequately training U.S. students to meet demand and opportunities? How can we best prepare U.S. students for careers in science and engineering? Should the government attempt to influence students' choices of academic discipline and if so, in which disciplines? Which level of education and training should be targeted--Ph.D., master's, bachelor's, technical training, or certifications? What should our immigration policies be regarding foreign technical workers? What is the impact of these workers on Americans in terms of availability of jobs, opportunities, and salaries?

  • Intellectual property. How should intellectual property (IP) be safeguarded? How do we encourage commercialization and reward innovation? How do we balance interests among contributing parties? How do we structure laws affecting relationships/agreements governing the conduct, control, and ownership of IP among researchers, academic institutions, and the federal government?

  • International Issues. What tradeoffs should we make between open access/free exchange of ideas and information versus national/homeland security versus economic interests with regard to the flow of workers, students, and knowledge?

Other issue areas include federal technology-transfer policies; the use of science and technology to meet environmental, education, justice, defense, agricultural, and public health and safety objectives; and regulatory policies in areas such as food, drugs, medical research, and public safety.

Challenges for Scientists and Engineers in the Policy Arena

Scientists and engineers bring valuable knowledge, skills, and approaches to Washington and can provide important insights to policy-makers. However, your knowledge must be tailored to meet the city's unique needs and processes. You have substantial scientific and technical knowledge, but in many cases your training does not emphasize the skill of communicating your research in terms a layman can understand.

Trained in the use of the scientific method, peer review, and test and validation, scientists and engineers tend to be very process focused and logical. This approach to problem-solving is often too time consuming by policy-maker standards and, while intellectually rigorous, may fail to incorporate important political, economic, and intangible factors.

Opportunities Abound

Whether you are seeking to make a vocational or avocational foray into the S&T policy arena, there are many opportunities. For those of you who want to dip a tentative toe into the policy waters, try volunteering for public-policy activities with local and national professional organizations and advocacy groups. Or seek appointments to S&T-focused boards and commissions.

If you want to take a full-time--but perhaps temporary--plunge, many professional societies have Washington fellowship programs, with opportunities at the White House, at federal agencies, with members of Congress, and with certain congressional committees. Some policy fellowships offer stipends, but many fellows are on leave from an academic institution or from a private company. If the latter is the case, you may be able to negotiate with your employer to continue to pay your salary and the costs associated with working in Washington (which is, by the way, a high-cost-of-living area).

And if you are interested in making a career out of national S&T policy, you can find opportunities with:

  • a variety of federal agencies, including the Commerce Department, National Science Foundation, and the so-called "mission agencies," such as the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, NASA, and the National Institutes of Health;

  • Congress--working for Senators or Representatives or on the staffs of House and Senate Committees concerned with S&T policy;

  • quasi-governmental organizations, such as the National Research Council, National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine;

  • the legislative offices of academic institutions, companies, trade associations, and professional organizations; and

  • public-policy advocacy groups and think tanks.

Finally, some people have the unique opportunity to serve the public in positions of public trust, as direct appointees of the President of the United States.

My Path to a Policy Career

My route to government service in the policy arena was both circuitous and unique. After earning a bachelor's degree in systems engineering from the University of Virginia, I became vice president of an entrepreneurial communications firm in Washington, D.C. With an interest in politics, I served in a variety of party positions at the local level and earned the party's nomination for the Virginia House of Delegates in three consecutive elections. Although not successful in winning a seat, I leveraged my political experience, engineering degree, and communications background into an appointment in the administration of President George H. W. Bush as public affairs director for the Commerce Department's newly established Technology Administration.

As a political appointee, I lost my job in 1993 with the change in Administrations. During my time at Commerce, I became well versed in S&T policy issues and came to appreciate their importance to the nation's well-being. I applied my knowledge as a reporter for High-Performance Computing and Communications Week for a year or so, but my passion for policy led me to jump at the first opportunity to return to the Technology Administration.

I now serve in a career civil-service position (rather than a political appointment) with the Technology Administration's Office of Technology Policy as a senior technology policy analyst. Broadly, my analytical work addresses factors affecting U.S. innovation and technological competitiveness. In particular, my work has focused on issues affecting the development and commercialization of emerging and converging technologies, the adequacy of the nation's science and engineering workforce, and balance in the federal R&D portfolio.

At the Department of Commerce, it has been my privilege to work with extraordinary scientists and engineers--from industry, academia, and government--to help shape federal S&T policy to advance the national interest. I have found this policy arena to be thought provoking and rewarding. I encourage you to consider the opportunities available for you to bring your personal experience, talents, and insights into this arena. And I hope to see you in Washington one day soon.