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Imagine … You have the opportunity to expand your skills...

By Mary Fox 2002-03 AAAS Fellow at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of Risk Assessment and Cost-Benefit Analysis

Imagine… You have the opportunity to expand your skills within your chosen field. You get to work with respected scientists and practitioners within that field. You can choose to experience a different approach to your area of research. You are well-compensated and expected to collaborate but allowed the independence to manage your own time and your own goals. This was my experience with the AAAS Risk Policy Fellowship.

As a health scientist working in the area of environmental policy, I studied the risk assessment process as a way to integrate human health data into environmental decision-making. I was interested in work on cumulative risk assessment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines cumulative risk assessment in its recent “Framework for Cumulative Risk Assessment” as “an analysis, characterization, and possible quantification of the combined risks to health or the environment from multiple agents or stressors.” The concept behind cumulative risk assessment is obvious (but revolutionary within the current environmental regulatory system); we and our environment are simultaneously exposed to multiple chemicals and other stressors. Cumulative risk assessment is still a concept in search of methods for most areas of environmental health policy except for pesticide exposure. My thesis research was a cumulative risk assessment for air pollutants. At the time I applied for the AAAS Fellowship, EPA was conducting its first cumulative risk assessment on pesticides in food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a role in developing the pest/pesticide management policies EPA promulgates. And so I came to work in the USDA’s Office of Risk Assessment and Cost-Benefit Analysis in collaboration with its sister agency, the Office of Pest Management Policy.

During my fellowship, I developed technical skills in probabilistic exposure modeling doing critical analysis of the pesticide cumulative risk assessment model. My colleague and I deconstructed the dietary exposure module of the cumulative model and ran sensitivity analyses on its components. We found, for example, that some of the basic procedures used to operate the model influenced the types of risky foods it identified. Subsequently, we devised an independent research project on different approaches to dietary exposure assessment that we continue to collaborate on. I took from my fellowship the typical benefits such as a network of colleagues in multiple organizations, new skills, and research opportunities. My experience critically evaluating a complex risk model was directly transferable to my current position at the National Research Council.

Beyond any particular skill I acquired, I gained perspective on the uses of scientific data for policy-making. For much of health and safety policy-making, the risk assessment IS the science-policy interface. I see risk assessment as a process for arranging available scientific information to answer specific policy questions. These are often questions the independent scientific facts cannot address. When assembled within a risk assessment there is substantial value added. However, the assumptions often needed to bind disparate scientific facts together create the opportunity for misuse in the service of a particular perspective or agenda. Scientists working in risk policy must be “stewards” of science. It is crucial that scientists understand risk assessment to ensure the appropriate use of available data and the proper interpretation of the risk assessment results. These scientists are also in the position to identify the data gaps and can promote and direct funding to needed research. Scientists within the government have a powerful role to play in the service of good public policy and effective research. By Mary Fox

Mary Fox served as a AAAS Risk Policy Fellow from 2001-03. She is currently a program officer for the Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology at the National Research Council.

It’s somewhat ironic that a once-avowed “Sciencephobe” has become the new director of the AAAS Fellowship Programs. Happily, a love of the outdoors lured me into studying oceanography with the Sea Education Association. It was an adventure that convinced me not only of the importance of science, but also its valuable role in informing policy. That experience has led to a career supporting scientists and engineers to effectively apply and communicate their expertise to serve society. I’m thrilled to be at AAAS and look forward to collaborating with the Fellows and Fellowship Program partners to continue to provide scientific knowledge and problem-solving ability to help ensure well-informed public policy.  

Cynthia R. Robinson - Director, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program

Disclaimer: The perspectives and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the U.S. Government, or the federal agencies/offices mentioned.