Fellowship Programs Bring Science Expertise to Government

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Publication date: 
21 August 2006

At a symposium at the National Academy of Sciences on June 15, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) spoke about the importance of bringing high-quality scientific advice and expertise to the U.S. government. His words have relevance for anyone interested in the Fellowship programs that bring bright, motivated scientists to Washington each year to provide their knowledge and skills to the nation's decisionmakers. The American Institute of Physics (AIP), with additional support from the the American Astronomical Society (AAS); the American Physical Society (APS); the American Geophysical Union (AGU); and the Optical Society of America (OSA) all sponsor Fellowship programs for qualified scientists. Please see below for web sites that will provide further information.

"It is a challenge" to bring science to any part of the federal government, Holt said, speaking from first-hand knowledge, having served as the American Physical Society's 1982-1983 Congressional Science Fellow, as well as four terms as a Member of the House of Representatives. Most Americans, he said, have "a poor understanding of how science is done" and "what science is for." While the Sputnik scare in the 1950s "did produce a couple of generations of the finest scientists and engineers the world has ever seen," Holt acknowledged, it "left behind" most of the general public. The result, he said, "is that well-educated, well-meaning members of the government don't know a damn thing about science." The House of Representatives, in which he serves, "is nothing if not representative" in this regard, he added.

As Fellows, Holt said, scientists are in a position to convey to policymakers what science is, how it works, and why "scientific knowledge is reliable knowledge." He cautioned, however, that Fellows will be dealing with people they must "educate, not alienate." George Atkinson, the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State, echoed this by highlighting the importance of building "interpersonal relationships" in order to get a scientific voice included in policy decisions. Atkinson also served as a Fellow; he was AIP's first State Department Science Fellow in 2001-2002. "The conundrum for science in the 21st century," Atkinson remarked, "is that policymakers want certainty."

There are a number of Fellowship programs that enable scientists and engineers to come to Washington each September, for at least a year, to offer their expertise to the federal government. Requirements for these programs vary, but generally include graduate education in a field of science or engineering, membership in the professional society sponsoring the Fellowship, and often U.S. citizenship, as well as a passionate interest in how science can inform and improve government policymaking.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), through its Science and Technology Policy Fellowships (see http://fellowships.aaas.org/), offers Fellowships in Congress and many Executive Branch agencies. Many professional science and engineering societies, including AIP and three of its Member Societies, also sponsor their own Fellowships under the auspices of the AAAS program.

AIP runs two Fellowship programs, a State Department Science Fellowship that enables at least one scientist per year to work in a bureau of the State Department (see http://www.aip.org/gov/sdf.html), and a Congressional Science Fellowship that supports one scientist annually to work for a Member of Congress or for a congressional committee (see http://www.aip.org/gov/cf.html). Partial support for the AIP State Department Fellowship is provided by the American Astronomical Society.

NOTE: The application deadline for AIP's 2007-2008 State Department Fellowship is November 1 of this year. Further information on applying to this program will be provided in a future FYI.

APS, AGU, and OSA, all AIP Member Societies, also run Congressional Science Fellowships. Application deadlines for these programs differ, but are usually near the beginning of the year. Please see the individual web sites below for details:

American Physical Society:

American Geophysical Union:

Optical Society of America (sponsors two Congressional Fellows, jointly with the Materials Research Society and the International Society for Optical Engineering):

The U.S. Department of State itself also offers a Fellowship program, the Jefferson Science Fellowship, for tenured science and engineering faculty at U.S. universities (see http://www7.nationalacademies.org/jefferson/).

It was at a symposium on the Jefferson Science Fellowship that Holt and Atkinson made the remarks noted above, but their words hold true for all scientists who are interested in a Fellowship opportunity and who care about how their government receives and utilizes scientific information and analysis.

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