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Learning the realities of federal policymaking

By Justin Grubich PhD, 2006-08 AAAS Fellow at the State Department, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, Office of Oceans Affairs, Office of Marine Conservation

Three years ago I joined the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships with an assignment in the Department of State. I had a fire in my belly and a personal mission to bring rational thinking--at least my version--to the policymaking table. After the 2004 election, I was incensed at the marginalization of science and evidenced-based decision making. I was convinced the federal government was being run by greedy, incompetent ideologues. I decided then instead of raging against the machine from the outside that I would try to change the beast from within, in whatever small way I could.

What happened to me over the next three years was a true enlightenment that led me out of the ivory tower and exposed me to the realities of how the United States government actually works, with its many agencies, policy processes, and the strengths and weaknesses of bureaucracy. I came to understand that Washington, D.C., is filled with smart, competent, well-intentioned civil servants; and, that there is intrinsic value to other stakeholder interests outside of the realm of academics.

Arriving from the scientific world of marine biology, I was fortunate to work on issues for which I have a strong passion. In my duties as marine science policy adviser for the Office of Marine Conservation and the Office of Oceans Affairs at the State Department, I was exposed to a whole host of marine issues I was never even aware of in academia. The two policy accomplishments that I’ll remember most in terms of leaving my mark in the smallest of ways, are coordinating and co-hosting with the government of Ecuador a regional shark conservation workshop, and co-authoring with my interagency colleagues the U.S. federal position on the geo-engineering issue of ocean iron fertilization.

Ultimately though, the friends I made through my AAAS Fellowship are my greatest achievement. While policies change, I know they’ll be with me for a lifetime.

Following a short TV stint with National Geographic after my fellowship, I realized the suit-and-tie bureaucrat’s life is not for me long-term. I smile widest when I’m out in the field doing research--even when it’s cheesy cable jungle science. And so I returned to academia, joining the faculty of American University in Cairo, Egypt. Ironically, it was through my fellowship friends at the State Department that I learned of the opportunity.

On July 6, 2009, Justin Grubich was featured in "Hooked: Vampire Fish" on National Geographic Channel. He embarked on an expedition in the Amazon Basin to investigate the dental diversity of two unique fishes with extreme jaw anatomy-- the Pacu, a cousin of the piranha, and the Payara, or “vampire fish,” nicknamed for its two-inch fangs. By studying their bite mechanics, Justin learned how these river monsters are specifically adapted to their ecosystem and how continued development and pollution of the Amazon River will impact their future. For more information, click here.

I left Washington comforted and assured that the new class of AAAS Fellows and the veterans that choose to stay are keeping science in the policy game.

December 2009: Justin Grubich, PhD, is assistant professor of biology at American University of Cairo, Egypt.

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.