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By Tawanda W. Johnson
Last fall, after Laura Gladstone began her APS Congressional Science Fellowship with the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Government Affairs (HSGAC), she learned that one of her most important projects would be preparing for a hypothetical pandemic. Having a person with Gladstone’s scientific background working on the committee was especially helpful after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus disease a pandemic in March.
“Laura’s interest and enthusiasm to help on a multitude of projects, from cybersecurity to COVID-19 response efforts to biosecurity was a great benefit to the committee and all our staff. Her ability to apply science to our policy agenda was definitely a huge plus,” said Christopher Mulkins, Deputy Division Director of Homeland Security for HSGAC Minority.
Gladstone, who has spent most of her early career as a physicist conducting research on neutrinos added, “I was able to meet with experts and help with early communication, but COVID-19 required a response from the whole government and not just my committee’s emergency planning team.”
Sponsored by APS under the umbrella of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Fellowships, the aim of the Congressional Science Fellowships is to provide a public service by making available individuals with scientific knowledge and skills to members of Congress, few of whom have technical backgrounds. In turn, the program enables scientists to broaden their experience through direct involvement with the policymaking process.
Fellowships are for one year, typically running September through August. Following a two-week orientation in Washington, DC, sponsored by AAAS, incoming fellows become acquainted with their new work environment. After interviews on Capitol Hill, fellows choose a congressional office where they would like to serve.
Prior to dealing with the coronavirus health crisis, Gladstone said the first step in her fellowship was getting acclimated to working in US Sen. Gary Peters’ office. Peters, who represents Michigan, is the Ranking Member of the HSGAC.
“Each Senator's office runs differently, like each professor's research group functions differently. I started by taking notes at constituent meetings, briefings, and hearings (and learning the difference between those). I summarized other people's positions into one-page decision memos, and in doing so, learned about their work and how the office flows,” she said.
Gladstone recalled there was plenty of work to do to stay on top of the health crisis.
“From January to March, we were getting reports, preparing for hearings, and working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I sent notes around my office from COVID-19 hearings, explaining the difference between COVID-19 and SARS-COV-2,” she said.
Gladstone said that chance meetings are often the most useful. “Dr. Tom Inglesby (Director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health) recognized me in the milieu before a Senate-wide staff briefing as ‘from HSGAC, right?’ and I was able to brief him on our recent hearing,” added Gladstone.
Besides COVID-19, Gladstone tackled other interesting matters during her fellowship.
“I worked with a group of AAAS fellows from around the federal government to produce and host a conference on the social impacts of artificial intelligence (AI). From my science and programming experience, I have internalized that computer algorithms will do exactly what you tell them, whether it's what you expected or not, so we have a responsibility to consider carefully what goes into them and how we use the output,” she said, adding “we had about 500 people who watched the AI broadcast.”
Added Francis Slakey, APS Chief External Affairs Officer, “Laura has done a fantastic job demonstrating how scientists can use their expertise to impact policy. Her extensive scientific background proved valuable on key issues impacting Americans.”
Gladstone’s next step in her career journey: working as a Research Staff Member at the Institute for Defense Analysis in Alexandria, Va.
“That means I get to stay in DC and hopefully do some cool physics with relative job stability. I also look forward to learning more about advocacy opportunities in DC, and I want to stay involved in policymaking,” she said.
While Gladstone served in an unbiased, scientific capacity during her fellowship on Capitol Hill, she pointed out that scientists should not be shy about letting their voices be heard on policy matters.
“I invite all of you to contact your representatives, whether it's about your research topics or putting a logical frame around broader topics impacting the nation. This contact, just like voting, really does make a difference, even if it can feel like a small action at the time. If there's one thing I took from neutrino physics into government, it's that small actions can add up to big differences,” she said.
To learn more about the APS Congressional Science Fellowship, visit the website. To get involved in advocacy, visit the APS Office of Government Affairs (APS OGA) Action Center or Contact Callie Pruett, Senior Strategist for Grassroots Advocacy in APS OGA at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The author is Senior Press Secretary in the APS Office of Government Affairs.
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