Joan R. Rothenberg

What’s a nice person from industry doing in a place like Washington? Colleagues, family and friends often ask me why I wanted to be a Congressional Science Fellow. After all, Washington has a somewhat dubious reputation these days. Why would a product development professional, well into an established and rewarding career with prestigious food companies, want to leave this familiar world and take a one-year position as a neophyte staffer on Capitol Hill? The answer is quite simple. I love a challenge and a mystery. Working for Congress is both.

For me, federal policy and regulations had such an impact on new product design and development that I wanted to learn why the policies seemed to come from another planet. What little I knew of the workings of federal food policy came through brief and sometimes frustrating interaction with regulatory affairs departments in seeking input on regulatory interpretations. I wanted to know how these laws and regulations came to be, how new regulations are created, and what my role as a science professional could be in the process.

Hit the books and pound the pavement
As previous IFT Fellows have reported, the experience begins with a 2-3 week orientation provided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). I also participated in an additional orientation program provided by the Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research Missions (CoFARM), of which IFT is a member. This program was offered in cooperation with the American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA). These two programs provided an intensive course in government; not just the process and procedures, but the policy and politics as well.

I quickly learned that being a AAAS Fellow is indeed an extraordinary experience. We were introduced to high-ranking members of various government and non-government agencies and organizations, provided with vast amounts of information, and encouraged to call upon these organizations in our work on Capitol Hill. The affiliation of IFT with AAAS supports our credibility as an unbiased science-based organization.

In addition to the orientation, each year AAAS helps place approximately 30 Fellows in the offices of a member of Congress or with congressional committees. The outstanding reputation of this fellowship program ensures that Fellows are well received by Congress. Fellows are free to choose where they interview, and most find a position within two weeks.

Life as a Fellow
I accepted a position in the office of Representative Rush Holt from New Jersey. Congressman Holt was himself a AAAS Fellow in the 1980s and fully appreciates the incredible opportunities the program offers. As a “staffer,” I have participated in a number of activities including attending hearings, providing summaries and briefs on various topics for the Congressman, and addressing questions from constituents. I am also carrying on the tradition established by my predecessor, Mickey Parish, in organizing a regular meeting of the “Food Safety Capitol Hill Gang,” a bipartisan gathering of staff from Congress and various agencies to discuss informally current food safety topics and associated government activity.

Our role as Science Fellows is to quickly analyze information in a clear and unbiased fashion to help develop a policy position. The issues on which I work include familiar food and agricultural issues, as well as unfamiliar non-science issues. To do this, I have sharpened my Internet researching skills and developed contacts at the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Although government and the policy process may seem to move slowly, the flow of information to and from members, committees and staff goes quickly.

The AAAS Fellowship community is a group of highly accomplished and interesting scientists and engineers with diverse professional and cultural backgrounds. To arrive in the somewhat intimidating and complex world of policy and politics, it is very comforting to have this network of new friends readily available. Current Fellows as well as previous Fellows who remain in Washington meet frequently for scientific seminars and social events.

A call to action
Now is an interesting time to be on Capitol Hill. Food safety, international trade, bio-terrorism, anti-microbial resistance, and genetically modified foods are but a few of the topics that currently generate policy discussion.

Unfortunately, the scientific community is often a silent constituency with limited participation in the government process. Food safety, value, and quality are of interest to every U.S. citizen, yet legislators hardly recognize the major group of food science professionals. Food scientists could be as influential on relevant topics as other concerned groups if only they participated more actively.

Although the Congressional Science Fellowship may appear to be geared toward scientists and engineers from academia, there are several Fellows with industry experience. The program has allowed this mid-career manager from industry to enter easily into the inner world of Capitol Hill and the government process, and new opportunities happen daily for personal and professional development.

Congressional Science Fellow
Office of Congressman Rush Holt

In This Article

  1. Food Policy