Thomas M. Zinnen

Since 1996, IFT has partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science to sponsor the IFT Congressional Science Fellowship. Each year, AAAS and three dozen scientific societies sponsor about 35 Congressional Science Fellows. In addition, AAAS organizes approximately 60 Executive Branch Fellows, so the total class of Fellows runs about 95.

How do IFT and its members benefit? First, the Fellowship helps IFT fulfill its mission to be the leading source for information about food science and technology. As Woody Allen said, 70% of success is showing up. Capital cities are important places to show up. The Fellowship program provides opportunities for food scientists and technologists to be seen by Senators and Representatives, Congressional staffers, policymakers in the Executive Branch, other professional societies, and trade associations.

Second, IFT is building a corps of IFT members with experience and connections on Capitol Hill. By serendipity, the five IFT Congressional Science Fellows reflect the full range of options. Starting in 1996–97, Joe Regenstein served in a Senate personal office. Then Stephanie Smith worked on a Senate committee, followed by Mickey Parish, who worked with the Congressional Research Service. Last year, Joan Rothenberg served in a House personal office, and this year I was with the House Committee on Agriculture. IFT’s newest Fellow, Monica Fanjoy, is in the placement process.

Third, these experiences and connections help IFT and its members communicate effectively with policymakers. Fellows share their insights through presentations to IFT Regional Sections, and they help IFT better monitor the pulse and pace of legislation and rulemaking.

The life sciences in general, and food issues in particular, made many headlines and headaches this past year, including the following examples. On September 18, 2000, the StarLink™ corn story broke. On October 27, BSE became a front-burner issue in France, and authorities confirmed finding BSE-affected animals in Germany on November 24. A November 28 meeting of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Scientific Advisory Panel addressed the StarLink corn situation.

Meanwhile, the disputed presidential election progressed all the way to the Supreme Court, and the 106th Congress finally called it quits on December 15, knowing that the Republicans would soon control both Congress and the White House. The makeup of the 107th Congress made history, with a 50–50 split in the Senate; the Democrats under Vice President Gore controlled the majority from January 3 until January 20, when under Vice President Cheney the Republicans took the majority. The majority switched again on June 7 when Sen. Jeffords left the Republican party, triggering an unprecedented mid-term shift of power.

In mid-February, two groups published nearly complete drafts of the sequence of the human genome, which many scientists expect to give us new insights into how foods build and fuel our bodies.

On February 20, the United Kingdom announced the detection of foot-and-mouth disease in England, and the world watched an amazing interplay of science, policy, and politics as government officials quarantined, killed, and disposed of herds of livestock, pummeling the livelihoods of farmers and their neighbors.

In March, the House Committee on Agriculture, where I served on the staff, began a series of hearings that culminated in two bills: an emergency authorization of $5.5 billion to supplement farm income that became law in August, and a new version of the Farm Bill that is scheduled to go the House floor this fall.

On May 21, eco-terrorists fire-bombed a horticultural research and extension facility at the University of Washington in Seattle, causing $5 million in damage and catapulting the biotechnology controversy to the front page.

Throughout the summer, the issues of human cloning and stem cell research triggered a sustained conversation on how biotechnology is changing how we look at life and how we lead our lives.

Traditionally, each Congressional Science Fellow shares a few key thoughts about the experience. Here are some of mine:
It’s not just about learning how things work, it’s unlearning how you think things work

It’s not so much the good bills that you get passed into law, it’s the stupid bills that you manage to block from becoming law.

While it’s fair to say, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” it’s also fair to affirm that competing adage, “Knowledge is power.” It is hard to imagine how a person or an organization can effectively influence policy without being both well-informed and well-connected.

Finally, when asked whether I would do the Fellowship again, I answer in three words: “In a heartbeat.” And to anyone considering whether to apply for the Fellowship, I say, “Absolutely: it’s a transforming experience.”

For more information about the IFT Congressional Science Fellowship, contact Stephanie Smith, Director of Science and Government Relations, at 202-466-5980 or [email protected].

2000–01 IFT Congressional Science Fellow

In This Article

  1. Food Policy