Looking Back: A Brief History of the MOST Policy Fellows Program

Rachel K. Owen, MOST Policy Initiative Co-Founder and Director

We are officially less than two months away from welcoming our first class of Missouri Science & Technology (MOST) Policy Fellows to Jefferson City. Through the hustle and bustle of making the final arrangements for our fellows, I’ve also spent some time reflecting on the past few years.

The initial idea for a state-level science and technology policy fellowship program in Missouri was shared over coffee at the MU Memorial Union in December 2016. Hallie Thompson, Mike Hendricks, and I talked about what was happening in other states and the current political and science climate in Missouri, and we left the meeting feeling inspired.

Mike, Hallie, and I meeting with Commissioner Mulligan, one of our first advisory board members and supporters in Jefferson City.

As we started talking to other students, faculty members, our local legislators, and other community leaders, the momentum and excitement continued to build. Through the 2017-2018 academic year, we worked under the State Affairs Committee of the MU Graduate Professional Council and we also worked closely with the Associate Students of the University of Missouri (ASUM) to schedule meetings with state elected officials during the 2018 legislative session.

Looking back, 2018 was a big year.

In 2018, Hallie ran for U.S. Congress and stepped away from an active leadership role with MOST.  Mike and I had received so much supportive feedback that we decided to step away from our other campus leadership positions to focus solely on MOST (and finishing our dissertations). That summer, we hired our first group of undergraduate interns, created a website and brand, and started to look for financial support for the fellowship program.

Perhaps one of the most valuable assets during this time was how in sync Mike and I were on the mission and vision for MOST. I want to pause quick on the story to highlight these values because they are still part of our core brand to this day.

  1. We were not going to be constrained by what other states had done. In every conversation, we listened to lawmakers and experts across Missouri to build a program that best served our state. We were adaptive, nimble, and receptive to all feedback, positive and negative.
  2. We wanted the program to focus on the people, places, and communities of Missouri. We stressed how this program could benefit Missouri, rather than pushing science for science-sake.
  3. Finally, we want to support scientific information being institutionalized in the Missouri policy-making process. We’ve always kept the big picture front and center in our minds.
Mike, Hallie, and our intern team at a 2018 midterm election watch party.

Our program really propelled during the 2018-2019 academic year. In the fall, we received two microgrants to host midterm events. As a result, we were asked to present on our events in Washington, DC at a post-election briefing hosted by Research!America. This presentation helped us find our space in the nationwide science policy community. Not too long after, we were approached by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and asked to submit our first big grant proposal to fund the program. I was driving home from a science policy workshop in Kansas City when I received the call – we were awarded over $500K to build our program and hire our first class of fellows. It was easily a moment that changed my life.

Somewhere along the way, Mike and I both managed to finish our dissertations and graduate with our PhDs. We were able to walk at the same graduation ceremony, led by Dean Jeni Hart – our first advisor and my current supervisor. What an emotional day! After graduation, Mike left to join the political science faculty at Illinois State University and I began my current role as the full-time director of MOST Policy Initiative and the policy fellowship program.

Mike and I receiving an award for our service with MOST with Mark Thomas, our advisor.

Ok, 2019 was a big year too.

Thanks to the McDonnell Foundation’s support, we were awarded two additional grants, from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to fully fund our first fellowship class. These grants allowed us to hire five post-doctoral science policy fellows to begin in September 2020.

In my first year as MOST Director, we’ve also expanded to serve as a boundary spanning organization between science and policy more broadly. In January 2020, we launched the Missouri Local Science Engagement Network to equip experts across Missouri to elevate science in policy conversations. We are formalizing public-private partnerships statewide, mentoring other states who aim to build similar programs, and much more.

During the 2020 legislative session, I acted as a pilot fellow serving agriculture and natural resources committees. This provided me with an opportunity to fine-tune how our fellows will interact with legislators. Our fellowship program won’t look like any other state-level science policy fellowship program, but I believe the structure will be the best fit for Missouri, encompassing the values previously mentioned.

If I had to bet, I’d say 2020 will be a big year for us too.

Looking back, I’m proud of how far we’ve come as an organization and the professional growth I’ve experienced along the way. Pursuing a career in science policy working for a start-up nonprofit in Missouri has been scary, but oh so rewarding. I’ve learned to stay true to our roots through the successes and set-backs. With all the hats I wear for MOST, I’ve picked up knowledge and skills in tax law, business management, public policy, diverse fields of science and engineering, and more. I have been out of my comfort zone more in the past year than I could have imagined, but I’m continually excited about what’s to come.

Graduating from LaunchU in February 2020.

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