By Wendy Hankle, Freelance writer
They’re tough and challenging. Rewarding and fulfilling. Oh—and don’t forget—life-changing or path-affirming. They’re science policy fellowships, and the experiences they give to participants are as varied as the fellows themselves.
Science policy fellowships tackle many aspects of the interface between science and society. Tasks can be as straightforward as working on a brief about nuclear energy, as complex as conducting research on a new topic, or as odd as exploring why certain tires blow out on certain cars. The commonality is the subject matter: science, however loosely or strictly defined, and policy, the rules—both rigid and amorphous—that set the boundaries for existence in our culture.
Fellowships in this area abound, with the lion’s share specifically connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS works with about 30 different professional organizations—including the American Chemical Society—to administer a large number of science policy fellowships. Statistics from the 2011–2012 class of AAAS fellows show that there were 416 applicants submitting a total of 643 applications (individuals can apply for more than one fellowship), culminating in almost 275 interviews and 146 finalists. AAAS fellows fan out among four general areas: Congress; Diplomacy, Security, and Development; Energy, Environment, and Agriculture; and Health, Education, and Human Service.
“About 65 percent of our fellows are [in their] early career,” says Cynthia Robinson, director of science and technology policy fellowships for AAAS. “But we have some folks who are retired, and now they’ve got the time to really give back and serve society. So that’s one of the things that I think is really exciting about our cohort of fellows.”
Statistics from the AAAS show that after their fellowships, 40–50% of the fellows remain in public policy, 20–25% return to work in their original career field, and 20–25% do something completely different.
Dahlia Sokolov claims a space among that first percentage who remain in public policy. In 2004, she spent a year as a congressional fellow, working with the House Committee on Science. Her tasks included advising members of the committee, putting together hearings about programs, and even helping to draft legislation.
“I really, really enjoyed what I did as a fellow and the [nuclear energy] portfolio I had,” recalls Sokolov, who got her doctorate in bioengineering at the University of Washington. “Coming into it, I had not given a lot of thought to nuclear energy; it was not something I had direct experience with. It was kind of fun to dig my hands into the science and technology of it all, and then there’s all the history and politics as well.”
After her fellowship ended, Sokolov was hired as permanent staff. She now works with the Research and Science Education Subcommittee, and her duties include looking at the relationship between federal government and academic science.
In addition to the wide-ranging possibilities offered by AAAS fellowships, many other opportunities exist for fellows to get their feet wet in science policy. One such fellowship is the Hellman Fellowship in Science and Technology Policy, administered by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences located in Cambridge, MA. Hellman fellows are charged specifically with helping to support projects of the academy, researching and exploring issues that are relevant to mutual understanding between science and society. One fellow is selected per year out of a pool of approximately 50 to 60 applicants.
“Academy projects tend to be more general; we’re not working on a specific piece of legislation, for example,” explains Kim Durniak, the first Hellman fellow, who served from 2008–2010. “We’re able to take a step back and look at some of the cultural issues in academia that perhaps need to change to better support research.”
During her time as a fellow, Durniak, who has her doctorate from Yale University in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, tackled issues like the siting of nuclear waste facilities, the pros and cons of personalized medicine, and the public’s perception of alternative energies. Durniak enjoyed her time as a Hellman fellow, and it led to her current job as an Academy of Arts and Sciences staff member who works with new Hellman fellows.
Former fellow Jeremy Richardson also found that the opportunity posed by a fellowship aided him in making decisions about what he wanted to do as a career. Richardson was a John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow in 2007, and now works for New West Technologies, a business that partners with government and private sector clients to deliver consulting and technology services. Richardson has his doctorate in physics from the University of Colorado.
“There are very few models that you can use to sort of get away from an academic tenure track position,” Richardson says. “I think that’s one of the really important things about fellowships, the ability to say, ‘Oh yeah, there’s something else I can do with a PhD.’”
Bahcall fellowships are administrated by the American Astronomical Society and are geared toward allowing early-career astronomers to gain experience in the world of science policy. It is a one-year postdoctoral appointment.
“Doing a policy fellowship doesn’t mean that you’re giving up research forever,” says Richardson, who also served as an AAAS Roger Revelle Fellow in Global Stewardship prior to taking his current job. “People make a strong case that if you do a policy fellowship for a year or two and go back to your research, you come back with a greater perspective on things.”
Returning to a previous profession with a different perspective is something former AAAS fellow Bruce Hietbrink understands. During his appointment as a Health, Education, and Human Services fellow in 2007, Hietbrink worked in the chemical weapons group of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, doing analyses of the needs that would be created in the event of a chemical or biological weapons attack, both during and after its occurrence.
Hietbrink, who earned his doctorate in organic chemistry from UCLA, went back to a position in academia after his fellowship ended, and he used his experience to create a general studies class on weapons of mass destruction. “It’s a fun class. We talk about biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological weapons,” he explains. “I want [my students] to learn the science behind the headlines.”
Jay Siegel, a 1988 ACS Congressional Fellow, also brought his experience back to the classroom. Siegel, whose doctorate is in chemistry from George Washington University, is the chair of the Department of Chemistry at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. He took a sabbatical to become a fellow.
“I did [a fellowship] particularly because it was going to be something very different than what I did in academia,” Siegel says. “That’s one of the main reasons why I recommend this to anybody who is interested in a sabbatical experience—you learn an awful lot about how government runs and how badly the scientific perspective is needed.”
Ellen Burns’ fellowship experience on the Hill reflects that of Siegel. In 2000, she, too, worked as an ACS Congressional Fellow, and in addition to tackling briefings and meetings, her expertise was called upon to make decisions about unexpected topics—like researching the cause of blown-out tires in a particular model of car. She is now a science writer, after having worked for several years in academia.
“That’s one of the interesting things about working in Congress: they view science very broadly, and what they see as being scientific is not just chemistry or physics,” she says. “The analytical tools you learn as a scientist and the idea of bringing various points of view or various perspectives to a problem—that definitely helps, no matter what the subject is.”
In addition to analytical tools, another important and necessary key to success in a public policy fellowship is the ability to communicate. “Fellowships force you, as a scientist, to think about how to communicate to lay audiences, and that’s something scientists are not good at.” Richardson of New West Technologies says. “You have to be willing to come out of your shell.”
Burns, the science writer, concurs. “You really have to think about who your audience is, what you want to get across, and how you can make your point in five minutes or less.”
Despite the varied experiences of these former science fellows, two similarities inform their present outlook. The knowledge and skills they gained as fellows continue to enhance their current career paths, and their heightened ability to communicate science to the public remains a crucial component of their ability to serve society.
Wendy Hankle is a writer living in Ithaca, NY.