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Supervising Fellows on the Hill: Q&A with David Goldston

David Goldston was appointed chief of staff of the House Committee on Science in January 2001. Previously he was legislative director for Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), who became chairman of the Science Committee in January 2001. David has supervised Congressional Science &Engineering Fellows® for more than two decades, in Representative Boehlert’s office and on the Science Committee.

One of the first S&T Policy Fellows he supervised was John Mimikakis, who is now a senior policy manager in the Climate & Air Programs Division of the Environmental Defense Fund. John described working with David as “an amazing experience,” and emphasized the effort that David made to identify ways that Fellows could get involved.

“Probably the most important thing was that David got the office involved in so many things that were high visibility--high stakes negotiations, very important things--and he always brought Fellows along and involved them in process. We were there seeing it unfold”, John explained. “Just being a fly on the wall would have been educational enough, but being an actual part of the conversations and negotiations was so rewarding.”

David Goldston recently shared his insights on how he made the most of Fellows’ expertise.

How long have you been working with AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows?

I began working with Fellows in 1985, when I first came to the Science Committee. I hired my first Fellow in 1996, when I was legislative director for Congressman Boehlert. I continued to supervise Fellows when I was the chief of staff of the Science Committee.

How have you and your Congressional office benefited from hosting Fellows?

There has been an enormous benefit. On the Science Committee, it was our main way to attract new staff. Fellows are highly talented, very motivated and open minded, and having made it into the AAAS Fellowship program is a ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.’ It’s an invaluable way to build up a staff 

In addition to the training that Fellows receive from AAAS, they also have the advantage of a built-in network of colleagues. I was envious of the network the Fellows have, both during and after the fellowship. To arrive with a set of contacts and people with whom you can bounce ideas around – that’s not the rule for most new staft -- definitely helps them and the Science Committee. Many of the Fellows we took on eventually became permanent members of the staff. We also hired Fellows from other offices as permanent staff.

Were you a mentor as well as a supervisor for your Fellows?

Mentoring is really a question of what effect you've had on the other person, so the Fellows would be the best judge of that. I was certainly the Fellows' supervisor, and I hope they considered me to be their mentor. I don't see any tension between those two roles. In a way, one assists the other. As supervisor, you’re seeing the work that they’re producing. The mentoring grows organically out of the day-to-day relationship. On the Hill, the two roles hopefully reinforce each other. 

As a supervisor, what practices worked best for you?

There are several very important things: first, to make sure there is an actual set of issues and tasks to assign to S&T Policy Fellows. The biggest problem for some Fellows in Congressional placements was when their host office hadn’t thought adequately about how to use them. On the Science Committee, we would only hire Fellows when we had an open position that required someone with a science background. It seems obvious, but a lot of offices don’t do this. 

Also, treat the Fellow like any other member of the staff. When they are new, they are new. Other new staff need the same kinds of support, and supervisors should have the same expectations for Fellows in terms of what they can and can’t do, and will or won’t know. Supervisors should provide the same free rein and constraints afforded any other staff member. 

Finally, encourage Fellows to ask as many questions as possible, and give them as much guidance as possible on their work. Make sure to provide a sense of where a Fellow is catching on exceptionally well and where they may be missing something. It’s a big learning process coming to the Hill, or any place in the federal government.

John Mimikakis, the second AAAS Fellow I hired, commented when he was leaving the office one night after a month and a half, “Sometimes I still feel like I don t know what’s going on around here.” My response was “Good! It means that you’re learning something.”

December 2009: David Goldston, former chief of staff of the U.S. House Committee on Science, is now director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.