As researchers, we all care about getting our projects funded. But do you also care about why your particular project gets funded? Why anybody’s project gets funded? We may shake our collective fist at the powers that be when funding is cut and grants are denied, but if you are curious about the bidirectional relationship between federal budgets and science, you may be interested in science policy.

There’s no doubt that some understanding of science is necessary for making decisions on contentious issues like renewable energy, stem cell research, and public health. But a look at the 112th Congress reveals a remarkable dearth of scientific backgrounds. Of the 435 members of the House, exactly 3 are nonmedical scientists by training. Todd Akin, he of the fact-averse understanding of female anatomy, sits on the Science, Space and Technology Committee. Clearly, Washington needs more scientists.

Enter the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship. This one-year paid appointment, with the option to extend to two years, gives PhDs an opportunity to contribute to policymaking on a number of issues at the intersection of science and society, and facilitates connections that can lead to a career in science policy.

I learned about the Fellowship from a recent UW PhD, Kate, who spoke with the UW’s FOSEP group about her first year as an AAAS Fellow (enough acronyms for you?). First, some basics about the Fellowship:

–   PhD in a STEM field is required. Roughly 65% of Fellows are recent graduates, but many enter the program from more advanced career stages

–   Applicants chose among 4 tracks: Congress; Diplomacy, Security and Development; Energy, Environment, and Agriculture; and Health, Education   and Human Service (this last track includes agencies like NSF and NIH)

–   Fellowship takes place in the other Washington (DC, that is)

–   Included is a one year professional development component, with seminars, workshops, and networking events

–   Stipend varies based on experience but will be a staggering figure to any current grad student (75 – 95K plus benefits)

–   After the Fellowship, half stay in science policy and a third return to academia

–   Deadline to apply online for the next cycle is December 5th

What makes an applicant competitive?

Applicants should express an interest in the broader impact of science, and demonstrate that interest through involvement in groups like UW’s FOSEP. A commitment to public service or outreach is highly regarded. Successful applicants must demonstrate strong communciation skills during a second round of the application process that includes interviews and an assignment to write a memo under deadline on an unfamiliar issue.

What do Fellows actually do?

Roles vary substantially by agency. Kate described two projects from her cohort: in one, a Fellow helped run a scholarship program to support  women in science.  Another interesting project involved advising in the production of a film about science in the Olympics. Her placement is in the graduate education divison of NSF, where she writes about science issues for policy communications and is involved in initiatives to examine and improve the state of graduate education.

Wherever their appointment takes them, Fellows are “the science person”. This means that while you may have spent 6 years perfecting a novel technique for real-time intracellular calcium measurements, as “the science person” you’d be looked to for answers on solar energy and whale sonar.

The AAAS Fellowship is a highly competitive program that offers unparalleled access to science policymaking at the federal level. Interested? Check out the program website, and also head over to the Links page for more resources on the Fellowship and science policy careers.