by Alex Belles (Guest, Penn State)
Alex Belles is a 4th year PhD Candidate at Penn State University studying Astronomy & Astrophysics. He studies interstellar dust in nearby galaxies using the Ultraviolet Optical Telescope on the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory. He was recently a NASEM Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellow and worked with their Space Studies Board, the organization that was responsible for the Astro2020 Decadal Survey. In today’s bite, he shares his experience with this fellowship and diving into science policy as an astronomy PhD student.
While I have always been interested in government, I never imagined being able to combine it with my astronomy and science interests. However, during graduate school I participated in the American Astronomical Society‘s Congressional Visits Day (CVD) and in doing so, learned about potential opportunities in science policy. In Spring 2022, I explored science policy as a potential career option further by participating in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship. In today’s bite, I’ll talk about how I got interested in policy, my experience with the Mirzayan Fellowship and how you can get involved in science policy.
Early on during the pandemic, I began to consider what I wanted in my future career. I decided I did not want to continue on in academia after graduate school and began to seriously think if I should finish my PhD or leave with my Master’s degree. The most talked about “alternative” career path for Astronomy PhDs is data science, but I wanted to explore other options. I honed in on science policy as a possible career path. I enjoyed my experience advocating for scientific funding to my representatives in Congress for CVD, and I was aware of the Mirzayan Fellowship thanks to a faculty member who participated in it after they finished graduate school. So, I applied to the fellowship and was accepted for the Spring 2022 Program.
For some background, the National Academy of Sciences was established in 1863 to serve as advisors to the nation on matters of science and technology. Today, the National Academies are three honorific societies for Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and collectively the entire organization (NASEM) provides advice to the government through studies and reports. The units within NASEM will contract with government agencies who need independent expert advice. Sometimes these reports are Congressionally mandated. The Academies staff help convene panels of experts and organize meetings to gather information about the problem at hand. Typically the committee will reach a scientific consensus and then write a report of their findings and recommendations for the sponsoring agency. All of the Academies reports are available online and many of the meetings are live streamed.
The Mirzayan Fellowship is a 12 week crash course in the world of science policy and the National Academies. Fellows are matched with a specific unit within the Academies that focuses on a particular subject area. I was matched with the Space Studies Board (SSB), the Board responsible for the Astro2020 Decadal Survey. The Fellowship is a full-time commitment in Washington D.C. with roughly half your time spent on Fellowship activities and professional development and the other half spent on doing work for your Board. With the support of my advisor and department to take time away from research to explore career options, I moved to D.C. from March to May 2022 for this experience.
Going in, I knew a bit about how the National Academies worked due the huge influence the Decadal Survey has in Astronomy. In November 2021, Astro2020 was released, laying out the main scientific questions and prioritizing missions for the coming decade. Space telescopes such as Chandra, Spitzer, Webb, and Roman plus ground-based telescopes like VLA, ALMA, and Rubin/LSST were all previous Decadal priorities, showing the immense influence these reports have. I was excited for the opportunity to work on policy questions related to the space sciences, but 3 months is not much time, especially when the Decadal surveys are multi-year projects. However, the Academies and specifically the Space Studies Board, do many other studies besides the Decadal Surveys — recent examples include Diversity Equity Inclusion and Accessibility in competed NASA missions, detecting hazardous asteroids, and the search for life in the Universe.
During my time, I worked on a project related to planetary protection policy (not the same as planetary defense!), helped run a workshop on space weather, and was able to attend a variety of other Academy activities like the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal release, a planning meeting for the Biological and Physical Sciences in Space Decadal, and briefings on reports to Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science & Technology Policy, NASA, and NSF. While research is an inch wide and a mile deep, my experience working for the SSB was the opposite. I was just scratching the surface of many different topics outside of my area of expertise which was exciting and refreshing.
One of the biggest positives of this experience was the opportunity to network with astronomers and other scientists working in a variety of policy jobs. It is difficult for faculty to advise students on careers outside of academia, so it was incredibly helpful for me to learn about some other post-PhD opportunities, such as the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship and the Presidential Management Fellowship. There are also job opportunities like working in government affairs for a University or private company, being a congressional staffer, and working in other federal agencies such as NASA, NSF, NIST, NOAA, and the DOE. One of my favorite experiences was attending a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee markup hearing where senators debate and amend proposed laws. Normally, Congressional hearings are political theater but it was extremely interesting to hear senators discussing legislation ranging from the blockchain to gas prices.
The Mirzayan Fellowship has refocused me on completing my PhD. While a PhD is not necessary for policy jobs, it certainly helps since many of the easiest avenues into policy for scientists require a terminal degree. This experience gave me the extra push I needed after a difficult two years due to the pandemic. Having a clear end goal of working in policy after graduate school will make the journey easier. If you are interested in science policy, you can get involved via programs like CVD, staying up to date on issues relevant to your field, watching congressional hearings or NASEM meetings, and getting involved with an advocacy organization.
Overall, the Mirzayan Fellowship was an incredible experience that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in policy. The three-month program is long enough to give you a realistic impression of what science policy entails but short enough that you don’t have to commit to it long term if it ends up not being the right fit for you. The Mirzayan Fellowship is offered every year and typically takes 25 people across all scientific disciplines. Due to the breadth of the National Academies, there are opportunities for all areas of policy like climate, AI, health, or transportation that someone might be passionate about. The next application cycle opens on August 1st, 2022 with applications due by October 31th, 2022.
Edited by: Briley Lewis, Mike Foley, Graham Doskoch
Featured Image Credit: NASEM