CS needs more AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows: Chat with Becky Bates

October 29, 2012 at 1:35 pm Leave a comment

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS — the organization that publishes Science) sponsors a Science and Technology Policy Fellows program that places scientists and engineers into positions in the US government.  The idea is to get more people who know science and engineering involved in public policy.  In general, few of these fellows come from computer science and engineering, which is a real shame since an increasing amount of science and technology policy involves issues around computing.

I got a chance to chat with Becky Bates who was a AAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow last year, placed in the National Science Foundation (NSF). She told me, “I really care about the issue of policy, and the issue of how scientists and engineers interact with government.”  She wanted to get involved because she saw that better understanding of science could inform policy, and that policy impacts what we do as scientists and engineers.

The program requires either a PhD in science or engineering or an MS in an engineering discipline plus eight years of experience.  Many Fellows are placed at NSF, but there are also Fellows at NOAA, NASA, NIH, the State Department, Department of Defense, US AID, and other executive branch agencies as well as in various offices in Congress.  Congressional Fellows are sponsored by professional societies (IEEE sponsors fellows, but ACM does not).  What AAAS provides is matching, training, orientation, and coordination between all parties.

Becky’s degrees are in engineering, but she has worked as a CS professor for the last 10 years at Minnesota State University Mankato.  She did the fellowship as a “not-quite sabbatical year.”  It’s a fully-funded year, including travel money.  Many of the fellows treat it as a kind of post-doc. Post-doctoral study years are still uncommon in computer science and engineering, so the fellowship doesn’t have a lot of visibility in computing.

She saw the fellowship as professional development and networking opportunities for her, and the government agencies appreciate having experts in science and engineering available.  Fellows inform policy and help to create policy for issues that they care about.  The AAAS-provided professional development goes on throughout the year. “Once a month, we go downtown to the AAAS mothership, to get seminars on cooperation, on working with the press, having ‘crucial conversations,’ on negotiation.”

“The first two weeks were pretty intense orientation. 8am  to 5:30 of training for two solid weeks. It’s like a professional masters in two weeks: History of government, how policy happens, how budgets get decided.”  That last part was particularly useful to Becky.  “We know that money is good, and how it helps us to do what we want to do, but how it gets allocated and distributed is mostly hidden from us. We’re vaguely aware that it happens, and we definitely don’t know what kinds of influences are deciding who gets what.”  That’s particularly important for readers of this blog, because how the money is allocated is important for STEM education and for support of research in computer science and engineering.

It’s a long application process, but both easier and shorter than a Fullbright.  Written applications are due on December 5, 2012 (applications are now open at http://fellowships.aaas.org).  You have to write a couple essays and provide some letters of recommendation.  “Most importantly,” says Becky, “think about your interests and how that can connect to areas of fellowships.”  Becky applied to Health, Education, and Human Services program area.  “I had been doing a lot of educational research, and care about Broadening Participation in Computing.  I made a convincing case that I fit into education.  I mostly supervise undergraduate researchers doing AI and speech, and I look for connections to community in order to inform student engagement.”  Another program is Diplomacy, Security, and Development, which could be a good fit for a computing person interested in information security.

In February, you learn if you are a semi-finalist, and then you have a month to prepare a policy briefing memo on some topic related to your area.  Then you have a 30 minute interview in early March, where you present your policy memo to a committee.  If you make it through that round, you’re a finalist, which isn’t a guarantee of placement, but many agencies want Fellows.  “There’s a fun week, where you go around to different agencies to find the office for you. It’s almost like a residency match — they have to want you, and you have to want them.”

Becky said that producing the policy memo was challenging.  She wrote about Race to the Top Funding.  “I connected it to my research on connections to community and self-efficacy, presented some brief statistics about the pipeline and what we know works for under-represented students. I also thought about things happening at different levels. If we’re thinking about this at a national level, you can’t just say, ‘I want more faculty doing this in their classrooms.’ You need to go beyond your own classroom. Moving to a national level, who are all the stakeholders? Companies, state and national agencies, industry, etc. Think about what solutions would have an impact. Some things are expensive. But if I could plan partnerships with agencies to highlight things that are already happening, it could have a broader impact.”

She said that it was a great experience that she recommends to others.  She finds herself thinking about education as an engineering problem, viewing education challenges from an engineering perspective.  “Now, I think about engineering and STEM education. Can we imagine engineers engineering the education system? Modifying it using engineering principles? What would it mean to engineer the whole education system, mapping all the inputs, outputs and transformations, the way that engineers work with the power grid, or a transportation system, or even a very large software project?”

She told me, “Your perspectives get changed. It won’t ever again be as small as it was. I didn’t know how big it could be. I’ll go back to Mankato, but now think about state and federal levels. And think about how things I do at my university make an impact at multiple levels.”

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