Legend has it that generations of foresters employed by the University of Oxford tended forests of oak trees so that a supply of suitable lumber would be available when New College’s dining hall, built in 1379, needed to replace its 14 m ceiling beams centuries later. Sixteenth-century Basque shipbuilders pruned trees in northern Spain so that the branches would grow into the proper angles required for ship parts that would be cut 150 years later.
Today, such long-term planning seems, well, the stuff of legends. But a similar spirit of foresight and commitment to the future must have been present in 1974, when the American Chemical Society Board of Directors started an effort to provide scientific expertise and advice to government policy makers by supporting ACS members to work in Congress. More than 4 decades later, the ACS Public Policy Fellowship Programs have proved to be an especially long-sighted effort in preparing ACS members to influence policy making.
Since 1974, ACS has placed PhD-level scientists and engineers directly on Capitol Hill to address the disconnect between scientists and policy makers. The ACS members provide technical expertise to the elected officials and their staff and, in return, get an up-close view of the inner workings of policy and politics. The program has been replicated by other scientific organizations, and today 30 societies collaborate via the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science and Technology Policy Fellowships program to appoint more than 30 Congressional Fellows to Capitol Hill each year.
ACS Congressional Fellows spend a year working directly for an individual member of Congress or on a congressional committee. They couple their own technical expertise and scientific acumen with the political know-how of permanent congressional staff to deal with the policy issues of the day. The Congressional Fellows also act as a conduit to the broader scientific community. Finally—and most importantly—they build bridges across a cultural divide between science and policy on a person-to-person, issue-by-issue basis, inserting scientific rigor and thought into fast-moving, and often nonlinear, policy decision processes.
In 1986, ACS created another opportunity for chemists to gain experience in the policy arena through the ACS Science Policy Fellowships. ACS Science Policy Fellows join ACS External Affairs and Communications (EAC) staff for 1–2 years. There, fellows work with experienced EAC staff to provide information to policy makers on the role of science in public policy, advance specific recommendations on issues affecting the chemical enterprise, and inform and involve ACS members in the policy process.
While many other scientific societies support congressional fellowships, ACS is one of only a handful to offer the broad sampling of experiences that the ACS Science Policy Fellowship program affords.
The Congressional and Science Policy Fellowships, which together form the ACS Public Policy Fellowship Programs, began successfully bridging the divide between science and policy 45 years ago.
The Public Policy Fellows will tell you the experience is life changing. But the long-term returns on the ACS Public Policy Fellowship Programs become more striking when you consider that today, 45 years after the Congressional Fellowship Program’s inception, there are more than 90 former ACS Public Policy Fellows. ACS Public Policy Fellowship alumni can be found working for individual members of Congress and in committees like the US Senate Budget Committee and the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources. Other ACS Public Policy Fellowship alums lead National Institutes of Health institutes, represent the US Department of State in international environmental treaty negotiations, and apply their chemistry training to problem solving in government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, and the Interior.
Some former fellows take on technical challenges with direct policy impacts by working in industry, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, technical agencies, or science-based advocacy groups. Still others have returned to positions in academia, armed with their experience and ready to educate the next generation of chemists on the intersections of science and policy.
In celebration of the remarkable achievements of the ACS Public Policy Fellowship Programs over 4 decades, a special symposium will be held at the ACS national meeting in San Diego. For more information about the fellowships, visit www.acs.org/policyfellow.
In 2019, science plays a larger role for a range of policy issues, and the need for the ACS Public Policy Fellowship Programs has only grown. Forty-five years since the first program’s inception, ACS’s decision to create it seems especially farsighted.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.