From Science to Policy: New OSA/SPIE Congressional Fellow Shares Early Lessons

12. November 2010

By Marcius Extavour

After a busy day at the office last Monday, I settled in for a long night of poll-watching and punditry. As I scanned the Web for ballot results, comments and analysis about the U.S. mid-term election, I realized that, more than ever, I have a real professional stake in the results. Regardless of the exact political outcome, the nature of my job in energy policy with the United States Senate will certainly be affected.

I am only a few months into my term as an OSA/SPIE Guenther Congressional Science and Technology Fellow on Capitol Hill, but I have already learned a great deal about the nexus of science, technology, policy and politics. I am spending my fellowship year in the majority staff office of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. This committee’s main function is to write, review and research legislation within the broad scope of energy policy, minerals and natural resources, public lands and parks.

My day-to-day work includes writing memos; summarizing technical and policy issues for the Chairman and other committee members; planning and organizing committee hearings related to emergent issues or pending legislation; and meeting with subject matter experts from academia, industry, government, and other stakeholder groups to ask questions and hear public concerns.

I have learned a few valuable lessons the hard way, even on the first few weeks on the job. Mostly, it’s been about shifting from the priorities of a laboratory scientist to the priorities of an active policy staffer. Here are a few lessons I’ve taken away from my experience so far. 

Get to the point. Concision is a virtue; verbosity a vice. Many of my assignments consist of summarizing complex technical material or policy history for a Senator or their staff--in one page or in a few bullet points! There is a tremendous appetite for accuracy and detail, but little tolerance for expansive treatises, no matter how eloquent.

Deadlines matter. In my academic career, a deadline could be sacrificed in the name of accuracy, improved analysis or added nuance; the focus was on producing the best product, even if it was delivered a bit late. Around Capitol Hill, timing is everything, and late material quickly becomes irrelevant. Accuracy and speed are both prized and expected.

Networking is key. A network is a group of trusted colleagues who can be counted on to give good advice in a pinch. As a new Fellow, this has meant introducing myself and my skills broadly to colleagues, and then finding out how we can work together. Career-wise, it has meant approaching people whom I admire and respect, and asking them how they got to where they are. I’ve found that most people who are good at what they do and who enjoy their work love talking about it!

With the national campaigns over and done with, policy discussions will likely intensify as electoral politics and strategy retreat. I hope that developing new skills will serve me well as I work with colleagues to advance the conversation on issues related to science, technology and especially energy policy.

Marcius Extavour, most recently a quantitative risk analyst at Ontario Power Generation, is currently serving on Capitol Hill as the OSA/SPIE Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow.

 

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