I came to Washington a year ago terrified, excited, and ready to learn.  One year later, I still feel all of those emotions almost every day and I’m so glad I made the decision to take a Congressional Fellowship through the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Geophysical Union (AGU).  I’m planning on staying on after my fellowship ends as a policy advisor on energy, environment, and agriculture issues for Senator Michael Bennet from Colorado.

My day-to-day experiences are very different from those in academics and I only rarely use my actual scientific knowledge.  I am no longer in charge of my own schedule and I don’t get to delve deeply into topics of personal interest.  But I do get to meet with people from all walks of life, I get to learn about topics as diverse as wildfire mitigation, Clean Water Act regulations, and Country-of-Origin labeling for meat products, and I get to help make positive policy changes.  The writing, communication, quick thinking, and multi-tasking skills that I gained at University of Michigan serve me well everyday.  

If you haven’t experienced the federal government, sometimes it’s hard to imagine what Congress is really like and what role a scientist can play.  Before I had this position, I relied on a number of common myths:

Myth #1: Politicians don’t work hard.
Although this may be true in a limited number of cases, in my experience, they work extremely hard.  And the staff members work even harder.  It’s just a different kind-of work – figuring out how to vote and the ramifications of each public decision; meeting with any and all constituents; strategizing about how to make policy and political decisions work together; and negotiating with friends in both parties to get things done. 

Myth #2: Congress never gets anything done.
This one is partially true.  The work to product ratio is horrible.  Some of you are probably in science because you like working hard on something, figuring it out, and getting the results published.  I loved seeing a tangible result for all of my work.  But I remember all of the times where we tried something in the lab for weeks (or years…) and it never worked.   And I remember how many times I wrote and re-wrote a paper because I couldn’t get the framing right. I’ve found that these experiences in academics actually prepared me well for my time in Congress.

The other crucial point is that it’s good that Congress only gets a limited number of things done.  There are a lot of crazy ideas floating around Capitol Hill and you definitely don’t want most of them making it into law.  We spend a lot of time stopping other people from imposing bad ideas on the public.

Myth #3: There is no place in Congress for science.
In my experience, scientific knowledge is actually a very valuable commodity in Congress.  The issue sometimes is that without knowledgeable interpreters, all scientific knowledge is treated equally.  Junk science or politically motivated science can be given the same worth as carefully conducted research that is broadly accepted in the scientific community.  I think that one of the best things scientists can bring to our government is our skepticism and urge to always question first and accept later.  

It’s also important to remember that everyone else is going to weigh in with the government.  Scientific opinion is just one piece of the puzzle along with business interests, human rights, political concerns, social welfare, etc.  But if scientists don’t add our knowledge to the table, it just won’t get included in the decision making process.  The other voices are loud, but I think that there is a place for science and Congress needs to continue to be pushed to listen.

Laura Sherman, PhD 2012, Advisor: Joel D. Blum