By Kathleen O’Neil
Fellows who work inside congressional offices take responsibility for learning new topics and assessing and communicating scientific knowledge while adjusting to a wholly unique workplace. This year, there are 32 legislative branch fellows sponsored by nearly as many partner scientific societies. Fellows also arrive on Capitol Hill (“the Hill”) at many different points in their careers, which affects both what they bring and what they take away from the experience.
Cassie Welch was a 2014-2015 legislative branch fellow sponsored by the Federation of Animal Science Societies in Rep. David Valadao’s office (R-CA) right after completing a Ph.D. in animal physiology. Shortly after she began her fellowship, a staffing change occurred in the office, which allowed her to focus on agriculture policy. But there was plenty she didn’t know.
“During graduate school, all I studied was nutrition and physiology of beef cattle,” Welch said. After coming to Washington, “where the majority of people know very little about agriculture, you really get to see a much different viewpoint of the industry and have an opportunity to share what you know. His [Rep. Valadao’s] district produced more than 400 agriculture commodities, so I began to learn about areas of agriculture that were unknown to me.”
Having never visited Washington before, for Welch the learning began upon her arrival. “There was a lot of culture shock – I grew up in a rural area,” and had never lived in a city that large, she said. She also didn’t know anything about policy and had never heard of a “one-pager” – a synopsis to help bring staff quickly up to speed on a given issue. But she adjusted quickly, and the fellowship helped Welch find her current career path in academia.
“It was never just a job,” Welch said. “It was an experience. I felt very fortunate to be there. The fellowship program is very well-recognized and respected, so to be a part of that was a great opportunity.”
Sponsored by AAAS, current mid-career fellow Kim Binsted is a professor in the Information and Computer Sciences Department at the University of Hawaii, where she researches artificial intelligence (AI), astrobiology and long-duration human space exploration. She joined Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-RI) large staff in September. The staff includes a “green team” that works on climate issues, which Binsted contributes to, in addition to working on topics related to oceans, other climate issues, health, AI, and technology.
“It’s really different from academia,” Binsted said. For instance, during her first week in the Senate, Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing was held, and she was surprised to see a person dressed as a handmaid from the popular television show in the halls. “That week was really weird. And then we were in recess. And then it was the election, which was crazy, and now it’s the lame duck session,” Binsted said.
So far, she’s worked on floor speeches about climate change, a one-pager on Bitcoin, and researched other issues to create brief “explainers” for the Senator or his staff. The legislative branch fellows meet up at least once a week, so they get to know how other offices work, and what they’re working on, which is helpful, she said.
Binsted said she was motivated to get involved in politics after the 2016 election and plans to stay involved after her fellowship. “I’m not going to be a politician, but I’m learning about what politicians need to know and how to tell it to them so they’ll listen,” she said.
Fred Lehman, another current mid-career fellow, has experience in veterinary medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. Sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association, he joined Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s (R-NE) office, where he is exploring appropriation opportunities to establish or expand rural veterinary practices in underserved areas, possibly with the use of telemedicine. During his research, he has consulted with experts at federal agencies and academia to better understand the available technologies and opportunities.
“The most rewarding part of the fellowship is grasping that everyone on Capitol Hill is here to make a difference and contribute to the nation’s well-being,” Lehman said.
Still, he has had to adjust to a different way of working. “All activities, whether administrative or legislative, must focus on the congress Member’s philosophy and contribute to the legislative agenda,” Lehman said. “This change in focus and style sometimes conflicts with the academic freedom that is valued in the educational system.”
Motivated by a desire to improve policymaking, Elliot Eichen, a current fellow sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA, retired from his position at GTE/Verizon Laboratories where he researched optoelectronics. He joined Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) office this past September.
While he was assigned to work on telecommunications and privacy issues, he also became interested in working on climate change, a topic he considers one of the most important facing the country. He is now researching new policy avenues and says, “I would like to move the dial by getting some legislation in the pipeline, to be able to effect climate change or privacy legislation in some way.”
“Perhaps even more important than doing the legislation is to explain issues to the staff, so they can provide reasonable policy,” said Eichen. He also said that his experience in both academia and industry helps him figure out what’s important and how to get things done. “This is a special place and you really need to learn about it,” he observed. For example, he’s found that arguments based solely on facts don’t always work.
But the part that really required adjusting? The new wardrobe. Eichen said, “That’s been the hardest thing: going to work in a suit and tie.”