Four states launch science policy fellowship programs in 2020

This year, four states will kick off state-level, non-partisan science and technology policy fellowship programs – Idaho, Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Science and technology policy fellowship (STPF) programs have long been an entry point for scientists seeking science policy careers, primarily in Washington, DC through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and other policy fellowship programs. However, a growing number of students are seeking opportunities to work in science policy. The demand for science policy fellowship experiences, combined with the need for more technical resources in state assemblies and agencies, have led states across the country to launch state-level STPF programs. Along the way, these states are building a nationwide network that will enable all fifty states to one day have local science policy opportunities.

National Landscape of STEM Policy Fellowships

In 2009, the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) launched the first state-level STPF. In partnership with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Simons Foundation, CCST gave development grants to nine states interested in building their own state-level fellowships. Two of those states – Connecticut and New Jersey – hired their first fellows in 2019. Idaho and North Carolina also received development grants from CCST, but Missouri and Virginia began organizing plans and fundraising independently.

Each month, states with state-level STPF programs and those developing programs meet to discuss program objectives, training curriculum, fellow professional development, fundraising strategies, partnerships, and more. These invaluable conversations and ensuing collaborations have helped states respond rapidly to COVID-19, host joint workshops at national conferences, and provide networking opportunities for fellows.

Every state is unique, so STPF programs naturally vary from state to state. The Journal of Science Policy and Governance recently published a white paper discussing some of the considerations for states looking to start STPF programs. In California and New Jersey, fellows are placed in assembly member offices and in state agencies; whereas Connecticut places their fellows solely in state agency offices. The four new states will each have unique models as well.

Meet the New States

The Idaho Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (ISTPF) is managed by the University of Idaho in partnership with Boise State University and Idaho State University and coordinated by Dr. Katherine Himes. The fellowships are made possible by funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) via the Idaho National Laboratory, and a private donor. The program will welcome the first class of ISTP fellows in late August. Both fellows hold doctoral degrees, and will be placed at state agencies, with the ISTP CAES fellow focusing on energy policy broadly.

The Missouri Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (MOST) is managed through the University of Missouri and coordinated by Dr. Rachel Owen. The pilot fellowship class is funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. MOST will welcome five post-doctoral fellows in September who will serve as independent science advisors to the Missouri General Assembly covering health and mental health; children, families, and seniors; agriculture and natural resources; transportation, public safety, and energy; and education policy.

North Carolina’s STEM Policy Fellowship program is administered by North Carolina Sea Grant, with Sara Mirabilio as program coordinator. Their program is funded by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Starting in August, they will place two post-graduate fellows in the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Office of Science, Technology & Innovation and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s State Energy Office.

The Commonwealth of Virginia Engineering & Science (COVES) Policy Fellowship program was launched in January 2020, led by the Virginia Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (VASEM) with support from various higher education institutions throughout Virginia. The COVES program is coordinated by Holly Mayton and funded through Virginia public universities and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. This year, VASEM placed the first cohort of six graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in energy, coastal resilience, biotechnology, and health equity policy offices from May to August 2020.

Growing Pains

MOST Founders meet with State Officials

Launching state-level STPF programs is no easy task. Many of these states spent years working with legislators, universities, and donors to make the programs possible. “Recruitment of both host offices and fellowship applicants proved the greatest challenge, as there was no ‘measure of success’ to win over a potential host, and no word of mouth among campus graduate students to help spread the word,” said Sara Mirabilio about the North Carolina program. MOST faced similar challenges during the recruitment process, said Dr. Rachel Owen. “Our applications went live right as COVID-19 started to surge in the United States. It was tough to get the word out with all the other noise,” she said.

“Securing funding for the inaugural class was – by far – the greatest challenge in starting the ISTPF,” said Dr. Katherine Himes. None of the states that launched fellowship programs in 2020 obtained funding from their state budgets, so all funds had to be secured through philanthropic organizations and private donors.

In addition to the challenge of receiving buy in from host offices, these states also had to identify structures and placements for fellows without much precedent. “The greatest challenge in launching the new fellowship was finding fellowship positions and host offices that would create the most positive experience for all of the fellows,” said Holly Mayton about the Virginia program.  In Missouri, they sought to find a structure that would not only enhance the fellow experience, but also provide needed resources for state policymakers, said Owen. “We knew our program probably needed to be structured differently from other states to best fit our legislative culture and needs, but we had to talk with several lawmakers over multiple years to figure out what would work best.”

“Of course, the logistics of setting up a new program are always a challenge, but resources shared by my peers from other state STPF program made things like the application process and orientation programming much easier,” said Mayton.

Effects of COVID-19 on New STPF Programs

Fellows typically complete an intensive orientation at the beginning of their fellowship programs. For instance, CCST brings fellows together for a three-week training period prior to placing them in their offices in the state legislature and executive branch. Unfortunately, states must move their orientations to a virtual format this year. “We were going to do a weeklong policy immersion course in Raleigh (open to other graduate-level students) in partnership with Sigma Xi, the scientific research honor society, to give them some “human resources” from which to pull from for the 12-month experience.  We now are doing a three-hour virtual orientation and “policy 101 primer” discussion with a fall series of topical webinars to provide them some education and a network, if only virtually,” said Mirabilio. Missouri was also planning an immersive orientation, but will instead expand the orientation to take place over the first six-weeks of the fellowship program for only 2-3 days each week, said Owen.

COVES Fellows meeting virtually in Summer 2020

Instead of working in person with their host offices, many of the fellows will work virtually. ISTPF is working with state agencies to learn more about their office expectations, said Himes. “Due to COVID-19, almost all of our inaugural Fellows have had to forgo moving to Richmond, VA and instead have worked entirely remotely this summer. In many ways, remote work has created challenges in our expected program benefits, such as building in-person professional relationships, fellowship cohort bonding, and opportunities to visit the Capital and visit state legislators’ offices,” said Mayton.

Though COVID-19 forced most fellow activities to go virtual, it has also presented some unique opportunities. “Our orientation programming and weekly professional development luncheons have been able to include experts from beyond Richmond, including Virginia Senator Mark Warner, American Association for the Advancement of Science staff, and California Council on Science and Technology Policy Fellowship alumni. Further, it has created an intensely memorable and unique summer for the Fellows working in and around the state government as it responds to the global pandemic. From the Virginia Department of Health – Office of Health Equity to the Public Policy Office of Dominion Energy, the Fellows have excelled at being adaptive and responsive to the ever-changing science and policy conditions this summer, and I think that remote work enabled them to do this even more effectively,” said Mayton.

Positive Feedback and Future Outlook

COVES Fellow, Sandra Yankah

Despite the strange circumstances of 2020, these new state programs and their stakeholders are excited for the opportunities that come with state-level STPF programs. Sandra Yankah, one of the COVES fellows placed in the Virginia Office of Health Equity in the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), an epicenter for the pandemic and social justice movements said the following of their experience, “At times, engaging in the process of examining and analyzing data that illustrates the pervasiveness of social and economic inequality has been difficult because it is a stark reminder of the devastating outcomes associated with these disparities. However, engaging in the process of communicating these findings to policymakers has underscored the important role science plays in social justice and advocacy.”

Idaho, Missouri, and North Carolina have received positive support and feedback from host offices, fellows, and partners. “The host offices praised highly the finalists we sent them for interviewing. Both offices acknowledged selection was a hard choice.  Second, both offices said the process of getting them candidates and making the selection worked very well,” said Mirabilio of the North Carolina fellows. In Missouri, Owen says they have heard from several policymakers who are excited to work with the fellows this fall. “The thoughtful and hard work your put into the selection process is evident in the awesome candidates selected. I can’t wait to have you and these fellows in the Capitol next session!” said a Missouri senate chief-of-staff.

“Everyone is so supportive! The fellows are excited, the ISTPF advisory board is delighted to see the program advance, and Idaho’s three public universities partnering on the program are pleased to collaborate. Certainly, state agencies look forward to advancing the connections between science and policy,” said Himes.

We’re heartened by the excitement of the science policy community to help other states launch programs nationwide, and can’t wait to see what the Fellows accomplish.  A national network of state-level science advising policy fellowship programs can achieve even more through collaboration and sharing among the programs.

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