Ellen E. Burns, Ph.D.

ACS Congressional Fellow, 2000-2001


Prior to the Fellowship, Dr. Ellen Burns was an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. During her Fellowship, Dr. Burns served as the Legislative Assistant for Science, Technology, Education, Environment and Transportation in the Office of Representative Nick Smith (R-MI). Dr. Burns is currently a Senior Science Writer at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Mid-Year Fellowship Report, April 2001

I am honored to address you this evening as one of two ACS Congressional Fellows for 2000-2001. This year has been an unusual and enlightening experience for me. In October, following orientation and numerous interviews with Congressional offices and committees, I took a position in the personal office of Congressman Nick Smith (R-MI).

Mr. Smith is chairman of the Subcommittee on Research of the House Committee on Science. As such, Mr. Smith is a key player in numerous science issues including NSF funding, biotechnology, and science, math, engineering and technology (SMET) education.

Upon joining Mr. Smith’s staff, I was given responsibility for all science issues in the personal office and for coordination of these issues and legislation with the subcommittee staff. I am also responsible for education, environment and interior, and transportation policy areas.

A House office is a fast-paced, ever-changing environment that requires a great deal of muti-tasking. My schedule is varied and changes with the member’s mood, needs and whims. This is a high-pressure and exciting learning environment. Typically my day may include: researching and writing legislation and talking-points, answering constituent questions on anything from the R&D budget to water quality, briefing the Congressman on upcoming hearings, attending the hearings and summarizing the conclusions. I might also be called on to answer random questions for which the Congressman requires immediate answers.

I work on several long-term projects for the Congressman. I meet with Mr. Smith weekly to teach him the science behind biotechnology. I have written my own text and use a number of graphics programs to accommodate the Congressman’s special interests and educational needs. I monitor international and national biotechnology issues—everything from regulations to public opinion.

In doing my job, I have learned a great deal about the government, the budget, science policy and the role of science in government—including how science and politics intersect and sometimes fail to meet. The fellowship has provided me with numerous opportunities to hone my communication and inter-personal skills. In addition, my year has been accented by a series of “once in a lifetime” experiences: observing a contested Presidential election, attending the inauguration and inaugural ball, and visiting Cuba to discuss science and biotechnology.

I now have a better understanding of the decentralized nature of science in government and the social and political considerations which necessarily compete with science in policy decisions. Science is not the central focus of government— it is just one of many important factors in a complex decision-making process. This experience has made it clear that science has different meanings, emphases and uses in policy, and that scientists can help to ensure that science is used and used well.

I have done my best to provide the Congressman and his staff with unbiased and comprehensive analysis on science issues. I have tried to reinforce the Congressman’s knowledge of, and interest in, science. I hope I have convinced him of the value of having a science “expert” on his staff. I have also spoken at several undergraduate campuses to inform the scientific community about the importance of science in policy decisions.

In closing, I would like to thank the ACS for financial support throughout the year. I must also thank the entire ACS OLGA staff for providing valuable technical information and crucial advice to make my year in Congress successful.

Looking Back

In September 2000, after 5 years of teaching and research in organic chemistry at undergraduate institutions, I took an unpaid sabbatical to serve as an ACS Congressional Fellow. My aims were three-fold: 1) provide accurate, nonpartisan scientific information to legislators and their staffs, 2) gain a better perspective on national science issues and 3) understand the legislative process and how science issues are handled within this system.

I joined Representative Nick Smith’s Office (R-MI) as his Legislative Assistant for Science, Technology, Education, Environment and Transportation. I covered a broad portfolio, including issues as diverse as NSF funding; Firestone Tire failures; the No Child Left Behind legislation; and waste treatment at concentrated animal feeding operations. I also taught the Congressman the basics of biotechnology--starting with DNA. In addition, I staffed the Congressman on a tour of biotechnology and biomedical sites in Cuba, which tested my diplomatic skills as well as my scientific knowledge. Working in Congress required communication, negotiation and interpersonal skills—and a great deal of multi-tasking. The job was often high-pressure and always dynamic.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I was not bitten by the “beltway bug.” I returned to my students armed with a new understanding of national science issues and the policy-making process. I used my experiences in DC to incorporate science policy examples in my classes, develop a course on science policy, and provide students with first-hand knowledge of career alternatives.

Most importantly, the fellowship reminded me that I had the skills to survive—and even be successful and happy—outside academia. This knowledge was instrumental in my choice to return to teaching in 2001 and in my eventual decision to leave. In 2003, I returned to Washington as Representative Vernon

Ehlers’ (R-MI) Legislative Assistant for Science and Energy. Ultimately, my Congressional experience facilitated my move to The Jackson Laboratory and is invaluable in my current position as a senior science writer and project manager.