Receiving the 2001–02 Congressional Science Fellowship—sponsored by the IFT Foundation and administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—gave me the opportunity to learn first-hand the federal legislative and oversight processes by working in the office of a Congressional committee.
I thought that the past Congressional Fellows were kidding when they jokingly referred to the AAAS orientation as “boot camp.” Now I understand that they were referring to the rigorous back-to-back schedule and urban orienteering exercises during the 3-week training provided by AAAS, plus the week of training by the Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research Mission (CoFARM) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) that preceded it. AAAS training provided excellent information about policy-making and politics, while CoFARM training introduced us to the local environment and fattened our Rolodex so that we could serve effectively.
The CoFARM-AVMA orientation was a combination of political science and Orienteering 101. This training was extremely effective in introducing us to people, what they do, and where to find them. We navigated the city and met with high-level public officials from the agriculture and life science communities at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, and others.
In contrast, the training provided by AAAS provided a broad overview of politics and policy. Through seminars, panels, and lectures on a large diversity of topics, this training showed me that information from diverse fields weaves together in the political process. For instance, we heard from the U.S. Dept. of Defense and Defense Advanced Research Project Agency representatives about defense. We heard from the Office of Science and Technology Policy representatives about science in the White House and from the Brookings Institute on economic policy. Once we completed our training, we began the placement process.
I interviewed with several committees and members of Congress with agriculture- or health-related interests and those from my home state. Having learned the importance of networking, my strategy was to interview with as many people as I could and learn as much as possible. I called on people who work on food-related issues, even if they did not need a Fellow, just as preparation to work effectively later.
After interviewing with the staff director of the Senate Health committee, my colleagues at the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) told me that it was an excellent place to learn about politics and legislation. The staff director’s insightful questions during the interview revealed a broad knowledge, curiosity, and depth of experience. He asked about the assessment of environmental health effects used in the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory development process, regulatory issues in the food and pharmaceutical industries, and research for the President’s Council on Food Safety which I conducted while at RTI. He gave me a position on the committee.
The Health office of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy, is on the fifth floor of the Hart Senate Office Building, proximate to Senator Daschle’s office. I was scheduled to start with the committee the same week that anthrax was found, but the building closed the day before I was to report to work. Unlike my soon-to-be colleagues, I did not have to take any antibiotics. However, the entire health committee was assigned to an alternative location.
Today, I’m one of about a dozen HELP staffers camped out in a conference room next to Senator Kennedy’s personal office. Imagine 12 people vying for a spot on a 10-person table, sharing three phones and three computers but no filing cabinet. After five weeks, we resorted to a box system just to keep each other’s papers separate. It’s the most challenging work environment I’ve ever faced, but these people get the job done! For example, the Bioterrorism Preparedness Bill (S.1715) sponsored by Senators Frist and Kennedy passed in the Senate as H.R.3448 before Congress recessed for the holidays (more information can be found at www.thomas.loc.gov).
IFT is one of more than 20 scientific and engineering societies that sponsor fellowships to work as special Congressional staff each year. The IFT Congressional Fellowship offers an excellent opportunity to learn public policy. The deadline for the 2002–03 Fellowship is past, but it’s not too early to consider applying for the 2003–04 Fellowship. For more information, contact IFT’s Washington, D.C., office at 202-466-5980 or www.ift.org/govtrelations. Whether you’re looking to learn about policy or for a career transition, I whole-heartedly recommend this opportunity!
by MONICA FANJOY
2001–02 IFT-AAAS Congressional Science Fellow