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A ticket to swanky Washington parties...

Dave Vannier 2000-01 AAAS Fellow at the National Science Foundation, Office of Legislative and Public Affairs

A ticket to swanky Washington parties was the first thought that came to mind when I heard of the AAAS/NSF Science and Engineering Fellows Program. My second thought was that admitting this on the application wouldn’t get me anywhere. Instead I wrote “the AAAS/NSF Program is an outstanding opportunity to learn how national policies are determined, implemented and assessed.” Revelry aside, this was my real interest. I wanted to see the big picture of science in America and to experience firsthand how the federal government worked.  

I spent my fellowship year in the National Science Foundation’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs—the liaison between the Foundation and the public. My duties included writing speeches and Congressional testimony for the NSF Director and Deputy Director, and drafting press releases highlighting NSF-funded advances in research and education. I also responded to queries from Congressional staffers, reporters and the public on what NSF does and why. NSF funds research and education activities in everything from anthropology to zoology. Having had a steady diet of molecular biology for the past 12 years, it was refreshing to broaden my scope.

At the same time, I was directly involved in the dialogue between the NSF leadership, the Administration, Congress and the scientific community in the process of setting national priorities for research and education. While I wasn’t making the big decisions, I followed right along with the issues as they developed. My role was to convey the NSF position through correspondence and testimony that required careful attention to the circumstances, language and the intended audience.  The change of administration that occurred in the middle of my fellowship only heightened the drama.  

Perhaps the most rewarding part of my year was hearing my words delivered at public events, press conferences and before Congress. I took pride in bringing complex topics, such as discoveries in nanotechnology and genomics, to life in everyday language. After working on a press release, I enjoyed seeing the story picked up in newspapers and other media outlets. In both cases it was gratifying to know that something I had done was reaching a wide audience—unlike most doctoral theses and scientific papers, mine included.

Aside from the professional experiences, the camaraderie that can come from being part of a community of science and engineering Fellows saved the year from being just another job in Washington, DC. Each year’s class of Fellows brings together people from diverse backgrounds that you can rely on throughout the year. I frequently contacted Fellows on Capitol Hill for information and was often asked for insight into NSF activities. Having these friendly and informed sources underscored the value of personal relationships in the seemingly impersonal bureaucracy of the federal government.  

Overall, the AAAS/NSF Fellows Program helped to immerse me in the political culture of Washington, DC. I gained a better sense of how the government works and became well versed in current national issues, such as education reform and global climate change. The experience also honed my communication skills and expanded my view of science and politics. And yes, I did manage to get to a party or two.

The author served as a AAAS/NSF Science and Engineering Fellow in 2000–01. He received his Ph.D. in microbiology from Columbia University.

Some 90 new AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows begin their fellowship year in September with a two-week long orientation on the interaction of science and the federal policy-making process. Key speakers and seminars will guide the Fellows through a comprehensive overview of how government works and how it utilizes science in decision-making. At the conclusion of orientation, the Fellows will begin their year contributing their scientific and technical expertise and external perspectives in Congress or an executive branch agency. If you would like a former Fellow to meet with your group on campus to discuss these opportunities, call the AAAS fellowship office at 202/326-6700.  

Claudia J. Sturges - 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.