William O’Neal, Ph.D.

ACS Congressional Fellow, 2008-2009


William O’Neal earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from Dartmouth College in June 2007. His doctoral work centered on developing a new synthesis of bacteriochlorins. Prior to his fellowship he completed work as a research associate for the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences. In 2002, Will was awarded the Southeastern North Carolina ACS Award for Undergraduate Chemistry. William worked in the personal office of Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) during his fellowship and was subsequently offered a permanent position in that office.

Fellowship Mid-Year Report, March 2009

The first six months of my Congressional Fellowship have afforded me a range of remarkable experiences and opportunities. I was exceedingly fortunate to find a placement in the personal office of Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ). In addition to being a plasma physicist, Rep. Holt is a former APS Congressional Fellow. Perhaps a result, he values fellows as fully integrated staff members. Most importantly to me, he fully understands and supports the notion that scientists are desperately needed on Capitol Hill and that their input should not be confined to the traditional science policy arena. Scientific training can and should benefit policies across the entire spectrum.

Part of the reason I settled on working in Rep. Holt’s office was the opportunity to contribute to a variety of issues that interest me. My legislative portfolio includes research and development, science and the Science Committee, STEM education, fisheries and oceans, telecommunications, foreign affairs, and special projects on energy and national defense. I also oversee the R&D Caucus and the Biomedical Research Caucus. As one might expect, I spent considerable time early in my fellowship trying to digest a great deal of background. While daunting, this task also allowed me to make connections between many seemingly disparate issue areas, a circumstance has deeply influenced my work over subsequent months.

Two major projects dominated the early part of my fellowship. The first was a roundtable discussion hosted by Rep. Holt at Princeton University in his congressional district. The Princeton Roundtable was initiated at the request of the Speaker of the House and co-hosted by Princeton President Shirley Tilghman. The purpose was to provide Members of Congress the opportunity to engage in a frank discussion with national leaders from industry and academia about the future of our national investment in and commitment to scientific research and development. In addition to Speaker Pelosi and several congressional committee chairs, participants included many renowned scientists and experts, including Francis Collins, Harold Varmus, Bruce Bursten, Craig Barrett, Norman Augustine, Shirley Ann Jackson, and John Holdren (who was nominated by President Obama to be Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy not long after the meeting). My duties included contacting and following up with invited attendees, preparing background materials for the meeting, coordinating logistics, and staffing Rep. Holt at the Roundtable. This was an unparalleled opportunity to witness the importance of this type of event and to gain insight from many of the luminaries involved in science and policymaking. It was coincidental that the Roundtable overlapped with (and ultimately had a profound influence on) the growing discussion of an economic recovery package, which was my second major project.

Representative Holt’s major goal for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was to ensure that appropriate science funding was included, and I was tasked with leading this effort in our office. I researched the immediate needs in science agencies, catalogued opportunities for economic stimulus via scientific spending, and met or conferred with numerous stakeholders, economists, scientific organizations, and others. From this effort, we developed a detailed argument used to advocate for funding science in the recovery bill. Rep. Holt was pleased that the final Recovery Act contained about $22 million for science.

One final activity I would like to highlight is my work on a resolution recognizing the plight of the Tibetan people over the last 50 years. Rep. Holt decided to introduce this resolution in early March. I was fortunate enough to manage the workload in our office and to be on the House floor during the debate. The resolution was agreed to by a vote of 422 to 1. This was truly an inspiring and rewarding moment in my fellowship. To me, it also highlighted the important skills and experiences that fellows can acquire by taking on projects that are not narrowly focused on scientific issues. The contacts I made and knowledge I gained from working on this project will be invaluable as I begin to work on promoting diplomacy through international science initiatives, another of Rep. Holt’s goals and a major task for the second half of my fellowship.

I hope that I have effectively illustrated the great diversity of issues and tasks I have undertaken thus far. The impact on my professional development has been profound, and the personal satisfaction I have derived from this work cannot be overstated. I am deeply grateful to the American Chemical Society for these opportunities, and I am eager to discover the new experiences that will come in the remainder of my fellowship.

Fellowship Year-End Report, August 2009

My year as an ACS Congressional Fellow has been, without a doubt, the most fruitful, rewarding, and educational period of my career thus far. I was exceedingly fortunate to spend my fellowship year in the personal office of Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ). Rep. Holt is a plasma physicist and a former APS Congressional Fellow. Perhaps a result, he values fellows as fully integrated staff members. Most importantly to me, he fully understands and supports the notion that scientists are desperately needed on Capitol Hill and that their input should not be confined to the traditional science policy arena. Scientific training can and should be used to inform wise policy decisions across the entire spectrum of issues.

One of the primary reasons I accepted a placement in Rep. Holt’s office was the opportunity work on a range of issues that many would not associate with science. My legislative portfolio included research and development, science and the Science Committee, STEM education, fisheries and oceans, and telecommunications. I also oversaw the R&D Caucus and the Biomedical Research Caucus for the congressman. But I also was given the chance to development my skills and knowledge in other areas. I was the congressman’s lead staffer for foreign affairs, and I led or contributed to special projects on energy and national defense. The diversity of my portfolio – and the importance the congressman placed on many of the issues within it – made for an extremely busy work schedule. However, I was pleased that this arrangement allowed me to have the full experience of a Hill staffer and that I was able to use my scientific training to make connections between disparate issue areas – something I believe is often lacking in our policy debates.

As I explained in my mid-year report, the early part of my fellowship was dominated by a roundtable discussion that Rep. Holt and Speaker Pelosi hosted at Princeton University, work on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), and efforts to pass a House resolution honoring the plight of the Tibetan people. The roundtable effectively raised awareness about the importance of R&D funding to our economic recovery just as the ARRA was being developed, and it was an important factor in Rep. Holt’s successful efforts to include $22 billion for science in the final legislation. My participation in these events gave me incredible insight into the functioning of our government, the crafting of legislation, and the politics involved in science funding and economics policy more broadly. The Tibet resolution was my first major opportunity to delve deeply into a foreign affairs issue. I was privileged to be on the House floor during debate on the resolution, which was agreed to by a vote of 422 to 1. The experiences I gained through this success highlight the benefits of fellows stepping outside of the ‘science policy’ box during their tenure.

The latter half of my fellowship year was less focused on specific projects and more driven by an ambitious legislative calendar adopted by the House of Representatives. A major goal of the House leadership was to complete all 12 appropriations bills before the August recess (which they did). Much of my time was spent focused on Rep. Holt’s priorities in each of the appropriations bills as they moved through the legislative process. My responsibilities included overseeing efforts related to the following series of bills: Legislative Branch; State Department, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs; Energy and Water; Commerce, Justice, and Science; and Defense.

Three specific examples illustrate the range of activities involved in this work: First, Rep. Holt has led an annual effort to refund the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) during each appropriations cycle since his election. I led the staff work on this effort for the Fiscal Year 2010 Legislative Brach Appropriations bill, which included floor statements, testimony before the relevant subcommittee, and many public and private communications between various members of both chambers. Unfortunately, it does not appear that OTA will be refunded this year, but I believe we laid the groundwork for future success.

Second, Rep. Holt is very interested in promoting diplomacy through international scientific engagement. One means of accomplishing this is through international research institutions, such as the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) project, which is under development in Jordan. I was involved in discussions with appropriations committee staff about including positive language in the committee report regarding SESAME. While such language ultimately was not included, these discussions led directly to Rep. Holt’s further engagement with the Foreign Affairs committee on diplomacy through science. Rep. Holt had a formal discussion (colloquy) on the House floor with Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Berman on this topic during debate on the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, and we expect that a bill on the topic will be introduced in the near future.

Third, Rep. Holt has long believed that the science does not support the efficacy of missile defense programs. Therefore, Rep. Holt and Rep. Tierney offered an amendment to remove funding for the Kinetic Energy Interceptor from the Defense Appropriations bill. I was given the opportunity to collaborate with another of Rep. Holt’s staffers on this amendment. While the amendment failed during floor debate, this was a valuable experience that allowed me to learn more about defense issues and legislative strategy.

In addition to the appropriations bills, the House passed the American Clean Energy Security Act during the spring. Rep. Holt does not sit on any of the committees of jurisdiction, so his involvement in crafting this bill was very limited. However, Rep. Holt was extremely concerned that the bill did not include enough funding for transformative energy R&D. I have been working with Rep. Holt’s primary staffer on climate issues to craft a proposal that addresses this issue. Our efforts in this area are ongoing and involve interacting with Senate personnel as that chamber continues to work on the bill.

It may also be interesting to note some of my work that was not directly related to legislation. In June, Rep. Holt hosted a day of meetings in the Library of Congress for approximately 50 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) educators from his district. From my perspective, this was an opportunity both to learn more about STEM-related issues, institutions, and people in Rep. Holt’s district and to educate the group about what is happening in Congress. I was able to work with our legislative director to plan the event schedule, coordinate speakers, and conduct outreach to the participants. I want to note that this activity, which might fall into the category of “constituent services,” was an excellent way for a fellow to see how legislative activities can impact the people we are working for during the fellowship.

I hope that this report effectively illustrates the diversity of issues and tasks that I undertook during my fellowship. I would encourage all future fellows to think carefully about the range of experiences that might be possible during the fellowship year. I believe that the most important task of a fellow is to stay open to all opportunities that might come their way, even if they come from areas in which the fellow has no expertise. There is so much to learn in the congressional environment, and each opportunity allows you to contribute to the policy process and to expand your own horizons a little more – exactly the point of the fellowship.

Finally, I would like to express my deep gratitude to the American Chemical Society for making this experience possible for me. My professional development during this time has been profound, and the personal satisfaction I have derived from this work cannot be overstated. In fact, I enjoyed my experience so much that I have accepted an offer to join Rep. Holt’s permanent staff. I believe that the Congressional Fellowship is one of the most important programs ACS can offer to its members. It is certainly one of the best ways that the society helps its membership understand the importance of public policy and the necessity of being involved in the process. I am most grateful that ACS will continue to make this opportunity available to future fellows, and I hope that I can contribute to program in any way that might be helpful. Thank you again for a wonderful year.

See William’s profile on LinkedIn.
*Note: You’ll need a LinkedIn login to view the profile.