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Summer 2005 Vol. 5 No. 2



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Uncovering the Secrets of Washington Policy

BY MARA JEFFRESS

Photos courtesy the National Academies' Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program Three times a year a group of students arrives in Washington, D.C., to participate in the National Academies' 10-week Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. These fellows are typically graduate students and postdocs in medicine, law, science, or engineering who are interested in the creation of science and technology policy and the interactions of science, technology, and government. I was part of the winter 2005 group and arrived in D.C. in early January, a newly minted Ph.D. from the University of Washington, green and as eager to discover the secrets of the Washington policy world as I was to discover the secrets of how molecules interact inside the microscopic world of our cells.

The seminars, and the program as a whole, help students develop essential skills different from those attained in academia.

After a weeklong orientation, each policy fellow spends his or her remaining nine weeks working with a member of the senior staff on various aspects of the studies under way at a particular Academies' division. I worked with Steve Merrill at the Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy on policy issues surrounding patenting genes and genomic and proteomic intellectual property. We also attended luncheons with the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, as well as congressional hearings and seminars and career development workshops. Additionally, the fellows create and direct a science and technology policy seminar series at the Academies.

During orientation, the fellows divide into three groups and choose topics for the upcoming seminars. By working in small groups, much as Academies committees do, we experience the consensus process firsthand and learn to work together as a diverse and educated group of peers to address the challenge. Each seminar, which brings together two or three experts on a controversial policy topic, must be planned, advertised to both the public and the press, and executed with a professionalism befitting the Academies.

Photos courtesy the National Academies' Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship ProgramPutting on a public event was new to the majority of us and there were several challenges. All three groups had to approach many experts before finding those who could participate. Within my group we divided up the tasks -- acquiring speakers, writing press releases, making brochures and flyers, advertising, facilities coordination, and introducing and timing the speakers during the seminar -- making each job more manageable. This was a crucial step, since all of us were working full time for an Academies unit and did not have much time to spare. My job was to make the seminar brochure and do some writing -- two tasks I enjoyed. In fact, it seemed my group was fortunate in that each of us naturally fell into the job for which we were best-suited and which we most enjoyed.

The program's resulting seminars took place during the final weeks of the fellowship session at the Academies' Keck Center. Some of the few educational seminars on S&T policy held at the Academies, they are open to the public and allow ample time for debate. Approximately 80 people attended each seminar.

My group's topic was the economics of health savings accounts. While some of the groups had to deal with late or confrontational speakers, fortunately the speakers for my group were on time and extremely courteous to each other despite a lively debate. The other seminar topics during the winter session were organic foods and the privacy issues surrounding security scanning technologies.

The seminars, and the program as a whole, help students develop essential skills different from those attained in academia. It opened up possibilities I never dreamed of while at my lab bench. As a result, I am now pursuing a science policy career. Some of my academic friends initially questioned my career decision. However, once I passionately explained to them the need for rigorously trained scientists to provide a voice in the policy milieu -- something many scientists are simply unaware of -- they understand. I only wish they could have experienced what I did in 10 short weeks in Washington.

Find out more about the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program and many other career opportunities available from the National Academies at <national-academies.org/grantprograms.html>.

Mara Jeffress is a recent graduate from the University of Washington, Seattle, with a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology.



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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences