AAAS Fellow: Talking Science, Learning Policy

December 14, 2010


Careers in the Math Sciences
Katherine Socha

A chemist, an astrophysicist, and a mathematician walk into a bar . . .

What could be the start of a bad joke about culture differences between the disciplines is a weekly occurrence in the life of a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. And I do not refer solely to the traditional Friday Happy Hours.

Founded in 1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (best known by its acronym, AAAS, pronounced "triple-A S") is an international, nonprofit professional society dedicated to "advancing science and serving society." The AAAS flagship journal Science, with a readership of one million, has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world.

The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program aims to teach scientists and engineers about the intricacies of federal policymaking, to foster positive exchanges between scientists and policymakers, and to increase the involvement and visibility of scientists and engineers in the public policy realm. The central goal is to create an expanding cadre of policy-savvy scientists.

Q: But what do fellows do?
A:
Lots! And their job descriptions vary enormously. Most fellows go to programs or offices outside their areas of expertise, and so the learning curve can be steep. Some fellows have specific projects to carry out or portfolios to manage. Some travel extensively, to Africa, South America, or other places around the globe. Others, placed on Capitol Hill, work in congressional offices or for congressional committees. Fellows in a "class" also tend to bond personally, meeting regularly for happy hours and forming a career-long and life-long network, always willing to help out a fellow fellow with advice, resources, or a spare sofa during a visit.

Q: But what did you do?
A:
My own fellowship experience was a bit unusual, in that I accepted placement among "my peeps"---that is, I was placed in the National Science Foundation's Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS), which represents the discipline in which I hold my PhD. My work did have a central project: developing an assessment plan for the portfolio of NSF Mathematical Sciences Research Institutes. After extensively researching the ways and means of program evaluation and federal contracting processes, I managed the contract with the experts brought in to develop the intellectual framework for a nuanced, careful assessment of the Institutes portfolio. Because this oversight required full-time effort only sporadically, I became the DMS "Jill of All Trades"---I helped organize and run panels evaluating research, infrastructure, or workforce proposals; I served as an expert writer and editor, helping draft or revise program solicitations, review analyses, highlights of DMS-funded success stories; I traveled to and observed site visits and I used these observations to inform the institute evaluation questions being developed by our expert consultants; I participated in the meeting with the DMS Committee of Visitors (in which NSF–DMS is itself the subject of an external site visit); I continued to support my academic career growth by going to conferences, giving talks (including math club talks at colleges and universities), and keeping up my mathematical expository writing.

Let me expand on just one part of this work: participation in institute site visits, either to prospective grantees or to existing grantees who were applying for renewals. As a non-program officer and non-evaluating member of the site team, I was restricted to an observation-only role. I was fascinated by the wide variety of cultures, both social and mathematical, represented by the breadth of DMS awardees. And I experienced again the (personal) recognition that mathematical scientists can represent as wide a human spectrum as other cross-sections of humanity; as a small example, the social skills of the mathematical scientists I met varied from nonexistent to well-honed. An example of the former: A few of our academic colleagues, unsure about how to interact with someone whose role in the visit was so unusual, did not approach me at all. An example of the latter: One site's leadership puckishly generated three different name badges for me, one listing my academic institution, St. Mary's College of Maryland, one listing my sponsoring organization, AAAS, and one listing my placement organization, NSF. I played back with them by offering their choice of the three corresponding business cards these institutions had provided for me!

The work, including the opportunity to see (through site visits and panel observations) the range of the mathematical sciences community, was educational and enjoyable; however, the part of the fellowship year that I value the most is the strong connections I made with DMS staff, both mathematical and administrative. My interactions with the division were entertaining, stimulating, frustrating, engaging, educational, and downright super.

As the first fellow to be placed in DMS, I had a bit of an uphill battle at the beginning of the year in convincing some of the senior scientific staff that I was (despite my youthful glamour and outgoing persona) in fact one of them. For a while, I felt underutilized in comparison with my work as a college faculty member; ultimately, I decided to take steps to manage my own fellowship activities instead of waiting around for someone to notice that I had skills to offer. As I volunteered to take on more tasks, which included technical work, such as writing drafts of review analyses or writing up success stories (NSF Highlights) about mathematical sciences research, many more of the program officers came to recognize that I was a good resource and a fellow mathematician who could both adapt to new situations and provide excellent assistance in any activity in the division. By the middle of my year, I felt that I had begun to win over the program officers, and by the end of the year I was fully engaged and as busy as I wanted to be. I came to enjoy all my work with the program officers and administrative staff, and I felt that my contributions were genuinely valued and valuable.

I now count many DMS staff members among my friends and mentors, and I look forward to working with them for many years to come. The new personal and professional connections I have made this year are beyond price. Although my family teases me for ultimate nerd-dom, I found my colleagues charming, both collectively and individually!

Q: Did you "give away" money at NSF?
A:
The legal status of my fellowship de-barred me from making funding recommendations for any proposal, but I learned an incredible amount about what makes a poor proposal, what makes a good proposal, and what may make an outstanding proposal.

Q: What else did you do?
A:
I took an introductory course on federal contracts management, designed for federal employees or expert scientists who serve as the technical contact for a contracting officer. In that course, my fellow students were all staff members at federal agencies, such as the Indian Health Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security, among many others. At the beginning of the course, we all introduced ourselves and gave one- or two-sentence descriptions of our agencies' and our offices' missions. Coming from a strictly academic background, I had not thought particularly hard about why people might choose to be career feds. But during the introductions, many of my fellow students spoke warmly, even passionately, about their agencies' missions to improve life in the U.S. and around the world. I learned that they bring as much passion to their civil service careers, with emphasis on service, as my academic colleagues bring to research or teaching or outreach.

Being willing to learn and to offer respect has made a huge difference in my approach to navigating the federal bureaucracy while trying to be a force for good in American science and American life. In my work for NSF, I was willing to go anywhere, to learn anything, and to pitch in wherever needed. In return, I developed a wide perspective on the mathematical sciences community in particular and broadened my perspective on the science and science policy communities.

The fellowship leaders make a point of distinguishing between science for policy and policy for science. The former means using the best possible scientific expertise to inform federal decision-making about problems of wide societal interest. The latter means developing practices that support the growth of science and technology, from basic research through market development.

Q: How long has the fellowship program been running?
A:
The program began in the 1973–1974 fellowship year, supporting a class of just seven fellows, all placed in Congress. Since then, the program has grown to 187 fellows, placed either on Capitol Hill as congressional fellows or in a wide range of federal agencies as executive branch fellows.

Congressional fellows are placed either in offices of members of Congress or in offices of congressional committees. Executive branch fellows can be placed in USAID, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the USDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the De-
partment of Agriculture, or in offices of other agencies that volunteer to host fellows.

The youngest fellow in the 2009–2010 class was just 25, the oldest was 77, and a majority fell in the thirty-something age range. Fellows came from nearly all disciplines of science, roughly categorized as biological (32% of this year's class), physical (19%), social (16%), engineering/computer (15%), geo (10%), and health/medical (8%). This cohort included a few medical doctors, an oceanographer, and even an archaeologist! The gender breakdown was nearly 50–50: 53% female and 47% male for this year's cohort.

Q: How does one apply for the fellowship?
A:
There are two ways to apply: through one of the more than 30 sponsoring scientific societies, or directly to AAAS. Sponsoring societies include the American Mathematical Society, which has supported the AAAS–AMS Congressional Fellowship since 2005–2006. (The 2009–2010 AAAS–AMS congressional fellow, Katherine Crowley of Washington and Lee University, worked in the office of Senator Al Franken.) Other sponsoring societies include the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the American Nuclear Society, the American Physical Society, and IEEE, among many others.

There are four main fellowship areas, of which one is the congressional track and the other three lead to placement within the executive branch. The four areas are (1) Diplomacy, Security, and Development; (2) Health, Education, and Human Services; (3) Energy, Environment, and Agriculture; and (4) Congress. Fellows in each area work on a wide range of issues: helping to plan and manage federal programs, contributing to assessment, helping to research and develop draft legislation, leading outreach initiatives, writing for a range of venues, from Capitol Hill to scientific journals to professional society newsletters, and pitching in wherever needed to assist with the work of the placement office.

Mathematical scientists tend not to see themselves in any of these four categories, and certainly I did not immediately think that I would be a great fit. However, a sociologist I knew through my academic appointment encouraged me to apply. My own application strategy was to examine the list of federal agencies affiliated with each track, and then to choose a track based on how I guessed those agencies might work with mathematicians or educators. Likely host agencies for me included the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of State, and the National Institutes of Health. I strongly encourage interested readers to consider a similar approach.

The application process is competitive, involving many review stages. Finalists for executive branch fellowships are required to participate in a placement week in Washington, DC, during which the candidates interview at a range of host offices that have expressed interest in fellows with suitable backgrounds. Congressional fellow finalists are appointed either by their sponsoring society or by AAAS, which itself sponsors one or two congressional fellows each year.

Prospective applicants can find requirements online; strong communication skills, especially to non-scientist audiences, are essential. All candidates must be United States citizens.

Q: How does the fellowship year begin?
A:
The two-week fellowship orientation program, held at the beginning of September, helps immerse the new fellows in the world of Washington. Activities are held at different sites around DC, and fellows have a great time visiting notable DC landmarks, including Senate staff buildings, and playing "spot the senator" games. The content of the orientation, dubbed "Civics 501," provides a proverbial fire-hose of information about the practices, policies, and programs of the federal government. The orientation sessions, led by distinguished faculty, legislators, ambassadors, and federal staff, are a blend of lectures and activities designed to help the new fellows move from a formal, scientific communication style to a more public- and government-oriented way of speaking and writing. (Jokes about acronyms abound.) Particular topics include the culture of public policymaking, the legislative branch, the federal budget, the presidency and the executive branch, diplomacy and foreign policy, and much more. Ongoing professional development workshops throughout the fellowship year supplement fellows' growing understanding of the federal enterprise and the roles of both policy for science and science for policy within that enterprise.

Q: What happens afterward?
A:
After the fellowship year, about half of the fellows remain in public policy---which includes renewing the fellowship for a second year, being hired by a federal agency, or going to work for a professional society or think tank. The remaining fellows split fairly evenly between returning to the same sector they worked in before and moving into a new area, sometimes starting a new academic degree program.

Fellows tend to have interesting and varied careers, both during the fellowship and beyond. Current fellow Erin Fitzgerald, a computer engineer placed in the Department of Defense, wound up (on the side) contributing to the National Academy of Engineering's advice to the Mattel toy company in designing the appearance of a soon-to-be-released Barbie doll---computer engineer Barbie! Former fellow (1982–1983 APS congressional fellow) Rush Holt is now a congressman, representing New Jersey's 12th District. In 2009, President Obama appointed Gregory Jaczko (1999–2000 AIP congressional fellow) chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Donna Riley (2000–2001 energy, environment & agriculture fellow) is now an associate professor of engineering at Smith College. The AAAS webpage showcases the experiences of dozens of former fellows.

My own experience in the fellowship program led me to make a leap out of academics into a new position: director of education policy at Math for America, in New York, where I will continue to work toward improving the experiences of mathematics students and teachers at the secondary school level.

Oh, and the chemist, the astrophysicist, and the mathematician who walked into a bar? We collaborated on the design of a research supplemental funding program aimed to increase support for graduate students from underrepresented groups within the mathematical and physical sciences community. And we think that's worthy of a raised glass!

Acknowledgments
Thanks to Cynthia Robinson, Daniel Poux, and the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship Program staff for detailed information about the structure, history, and demographics of the fellowship class.

Katherine Socha is director of education policy at Math for America, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving secondary school mathematics teaching through recruiting, training, and retaining well-prepared (both mathematically and pedagogically) mathematics teachers. Socha's scholarly interests include mathematical fluid dynamics and partial differential equations. In 2008, she received a Lester R. Ford Award (for an American Mathematical Monthly article of expository excellence) and a Henry L. Alder Award (for distinguished teaching) from the MAA.

Susan Minkoff (sminkoff@umbc.edu), of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is the editor of the Careers in the Math Sciences column.


Renew SIAM · Contact Us · Site Map · Join SIAM · My Account
Facebook Twitter Youtube