Whew. What a November and December to remember. September and October were not exactly off-the-shelf either. If, as Woody Allen contends, 70% of success is showing up, then this was the autumn to show up in Washington.
IFT shows up in Washington in many ways. Our members, officers and staff visit members of Congress and consult with federal agencies. These interactions will be facilitated and leveraged by IFT’s new Office of Science, Communications & Government Relations, which officially opened in October. In recent years, IFT has participated in the Congressional Science Fellowship program, which has been organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for more than two decades. To date, IFT and the IFT Foundation have sponsored five fellows, with the process of seeking candidates to be the sixth fellow well underway.
I have the privilege to be the fifth IFT Congressional Science Fellow. While all the election projections about Florida didn’t exactly turn out right, all the predictions by former IFT participants about the fellowship year have been right on target: it’s a transforming event, just as promised.
After being selected in the spring and making arrangements to go on leave from my position in Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I arrived in Washington at the end of August. My first event was a special 3-day orientation for four fellows from agriculture and food technology organizations. This extra training session was tailored by the American Veterinary Medical Association and by CoFARM, a consortium of which IFT is a member.
My colleagues and I traveled to numerous agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation to hear first-hand about the food and agriculture issues that Congress will be wrestling with over the next year. The personal connections and the professional insights provided by this specialized orientation made it time well spent.
Early in September, 39 fellows chosen by nearly 30 scientific and professional associations, together with another 56 science and diplomacy fellows who are now working in the executive branch, gathered for the regular orientation at the AAAS building. We enjoyed two weeks of presentations on the functions and foibles of the federal government. Speakers from Congress, the Executive branch and the Judiciary branch shared insights and savvy about working in Washington. Many speakers were former science fellows, a few of whom expressed a curious mix of empathy and excitement toward their successors.
My 94 fellow fellows (our common attempt at wit, showing there is no dearth of honed humor among scientific types) are a mixed bag: some with glinty new PhDs, some on mid-career sabbaticals, a few already retired. They include psychologists, rocket scientists, a physician or two, geologists, biologists, ecologists, and a welder.
A welder? What’s a welder doing in Washington? The significance of the welder was a lot clearer when the Russian submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea. From submarines to aircraft, whether they be the implements of war, the pipelines of peace, or the channels of commerce—welding holds them together. I can’t tell welding from brazing from soldering, but I get how important they can be. All 95 of us got it because this one guy showed up, sponsored by his professional association.
It’s one epiphany after another.
And that’s the power of showing up. That’s why 30 professional associations invest money and time in recruiting, interviewing, selecting and funding a Congressional Science Fellow to spend a year on Capitol Hill. The fellow helps other people get it. The other people happen to be members of Congress, their constituents, their staffers, and the people who work on the Executive side. That’s an influential audience.
That’s the power of IFT’s participation in the Congressional Science Fellowship: to help people from other professions get the importance and essence of the work of people who produce, process and provide food.
I got to see it first hand starting on September 18 when the story of StarLink corn broke into the news. Allergenicity, fungibility, traceability, plant-pesticides, adulterants, GMO, FDCA, FIFRA: these issues challenge our ability as a profession and as an industry to tell our stories and to clarify misconceptions.
Every profession and every fellow faces these challenges. The common thread in this mixed bag of 39 science fellows is the willingness to try their hand at braiding science, policy and politics.
While we come to Washington to learn through experience, it seems one of the first things to figure out is that we have a lot to unlearn. Civics lessons from high school and political science insights from college are probably best retired and archived, to be replaced with a new compass and a different calculus.
I can’t say yet what that calculus is, and I might not have a clear view next August at the end of my fellowship year. By then, another IFT member will be showing up in Washington as our next fellow.
August is a long time from now. But people who work with food are used to looking ahead and planning into the future. After all, “provisions” is just another word for food. The application deadline is January 26, 2001. So now really is a great time to make provisions.
Additional information is available on the IFT web site at www.ift.org/resource/policy/fellow/sc_j00.shtml. Please contact Mary Helen Arthur (312/782-8242 ext. 219 or [email protected]) before the deadline if you intend to apply.
by THOMAS M. ZINNEN
2000–2001 IFT Congressional Science Fellow