AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) give scientists and engineers the opportunity to apply their knowledge and analytical skills to the policymaking process.
These US-based fellowships are predominantly located within the Executive Branch of the federal government, such as the National Science Foundation. However, there are over 30 opportunities in the Legislative Branch and one in the Judicial Branch. Fellowships last one year, though some Executive Branch agencies can opt to extend their Fellows’ terms for an additional year.
I spoke with Reba Bandyopadhyay, PhD, who was a Legislative Branch Fellow in the office of Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), sponsored by the American Physical Society*, from 2014–2015. To broaden her training, she also completed a AAAS Executive Branch Fellowship from 2015–2017.
For information on Executive Branch Fellowships see our previous interview.
What is your current position?
I’m a science policy analyst at the National Science Foundation in the office of the National Science Board, which is the governing body for the Foundation. This is also where I did my AAAS Executive Branch Fellowship. My job includes drafting and presenting policy products and communications and handling legislative affairs for the board. I keep track of what Congress is doing, assist Board members when they talk to Members of Congress about science and technology issues, and give technical assistance on legislation if requested.
What were your favorite aspects of the two fellowships?
The Congressional Fellowship is very fast paced, so if you like a fast-paced environment and you’re good at moving quickly, you’ll enjoy it. The Executive Branch Fellowships are slower paced because it takes things longer to develop.
One of my favorite things about the fellowships is feeling like you’re actually making an impact on something, even though you won’t immediately feel like that. You figure out what you’re doing first, and then you realize, “Oh, actually this is a good fit”. I enjoyed meeting really great people. Both of the offices I’ve been in have been extremely functional, good teams with good rapport, where people trust each other. That environment allowed me to be more independent and take on more responsibilities.
Can you describe the most common duties of a Congressional Fellow?
There are no typical days as a Congressional Fellow, though functionally we are policy staff for our Member of Congress. A common responsibility of policy staff is meeting with individual constituents, interest groups, lobbyists, unions, and organizations like teachers’ federations. These visitors usually come in to talk about a particular upcoming bill. Another frequent task is doing background research for upcoming legislation to help our Member decide what position to take.
Do you ever directly contribute to legislation that comes from your Member’s office?
Yes. Sometimes we come up with suggested ideas for legislation or policy objectives for the Member. We help develop plans for carrying out the policy goals of our Member— so when they tell their staff, “I want to do X,” we figure out how to accomplish that and what the constraints are.
Do the legislative constraints ever require any political strategizing about how best to go about passing bills?
Yes, it does. Part of the policy staff’s job is finding co-sponsors to a piece of legislation or amendment. There’s a lot of alliance-building involved. Sometimes there are also political directives from the leadership of the party, such as working to support a particular person because that Member’s going to be up for election in the following year. You also help build partnerships across the aisle, which requires finding where the mutual interest lies. For instance, Senator Schatz’s office has worked productively with Republican offices on health care issues, like expanding access for rural communities.
Other than advising and strategizing on legislation, what else do Fellows do?
There are lots of public briefings on the Hill, which Fellows and other staffers attend. These briefings are where experts from fields related to upcoming legislation or active policy discussions give their professional analysis to inform congressional staff about issues relating to that legislation or policy. Also, Members will sometimes ask their staff a specific policy question. Our job is to find out the answer, and then brief them in staff or personal meetings about our findings. We may also brief the Member about content ahead of hearings, write questions for them to ask, and attend hearings with them. We’re some of the people you see on TV sitting behind them, alongside their professional legislative staff.
What did you learn about the process of making and implementing policy, especially the interaction between Congress and agencies, or interagency interactions?
There’s a back-and-forth between the Legislative and Executive Branches in policy-making. A Member of Congress will decide to write a bill and can ask the Executive agency charged with dealing with that piece of legislation to provide feedback. Agencies may not love everything that’s in every bill, but they provide the technical information for Members of Congress to help ensure the legislation would be feasible to implement. There’s also work between different Executive agencies on issues that fall under the purview of more than one agency. One example of that is STEM education, where the different science agencies get together and talk about their programs, share best practices, and look for opportunities to coordinate or collaborate.
Were your activities driven more by your interests, by current scientific trends, or issues already being considered by the legislature?
There can be a relationship between your research expertise and what you’re assigned to help with in the office. I was a black hole observational astronomer, so it’s tricky to find which population would most benefit from having my expertise. I’ve spent a lot of time in Hawaii because that’s where many of our telescopes are, so that background helped make me a good fit for Senator Schatz’s office. While your interests do factor into your placement to some extent, you can’t come in asking to work on a specific issue. It’s helpful to have examples of issues that are of interest to you, but it’s not good to expect to definitely work on one thing. Any given member only has so much control over the agenda in the first place.
What professional skills do you need to succeed as a fellow?
To be successful as a fellow, you need really good communication skills. That includes written, not just verbal, communication, people skills, and good teamwork. You have to check your ego at the door—that’s a big one. Another useful professional skill is being a generalist, meaning having a wide range of interests and being widely read, and not being laser-focused on one problem. It’s helpful if you’re adaptable.
What’s something that scientists working in policy struggle with?
One thing that’s hard for scientists is that we always look for more data, and we’re never completely sure about a conclusion, so we don’t necessarily want to take a stance on an issue right away. But in policy you can’t always hedge. You have to be ready to use the available information to make a recommendation, and sometimes the available information is what you were able to get in the last three hours.
What advice would you give to prospective applicants?
Experience comes in a variety of forms, and it doesn’t have to be policy experience specifically. Applicants should show how they work in a collaborative environment and that they can understand and navigate through different competing issues or desires or strong opinions. Talking about mentorship experience, like teaching undergrads in a lab, or public outreach, is also a good option. Also, even if applicants don’t have direct policy experience, it’s good to demonstrate that they’re keeping abreast of policy news and they’re aware of how scientists can contribute to policy work
*Fellowships sponsored by partner scientific societies such as the APS may have different eligibility requirements and deadlines than the regular AAAS S&TPF. The APS-sponsored Congressional Fellowship application is due on January 15th, 2019. AAAS S&TPF applications close each year in November. For further guidance on how to apply, read our recently published article with tips from former AAAS fellows on the application process.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of Dr. Bandyopadhyay and do not reflect an endorsement or contribution by Senator Schatz, the National Science Board, NSF, or any other organization.
About the author:
Jo Bairzin received her PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley in 2018, where her graduate research focused on the genetics of cancer and development in fruit flies. She is a member of the Early Career Scientist Policy Subcommittee of the Genetics Society of America, which aims to help scientists access policy careers and engage with policymakers. She is also passionate about improving graduate training to better reflect the current STEM career landscape.