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Fall 2001

Passing the torch: Congressional Science Fellowship sponsored by AMS and UCAR enters its second year

by Zhenya Gallon

This September, Tim Benner, the first congressional fellow to be sponsored jointly by the AMS and UCAR, wrapped up a year's introduction to policy making in Washington. As he finished up, new fellow Ana Unruh arrived to learn the ropes.

Several years ago, the UCAR Board of Trustees held discussions on the topic of community leadership, including creating a fellowship program and having it managed through the Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"Dick Hallgren of the AMS was on the board, and it quickly became a discussion about a joint fellowship," recalls UCAR vice- president for corporate affairs Jack Fellows. Board members were very interested, and "that interest is what made it happen," he says.

AAAS coordinates the umbrella program on behalf of about 35 sponsoring organizations, in addition to offering several AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships of its own. Each organization selects and supports its own fellows; AAAS provides two weeks of orientation and ongoing support. The new fellows get a quick overview of the federal government and assistance finding suitable placements in congressional offices or on committees, as well as housing advice. AAAS also organizes monthly get-togethers over lunch or dinner for social support.

William Hooke, director of the Atmospheric Policy Program in the AMS, says, "We're very enthusiastic about our partnership with UCAR." The idea is "to make good science more accessible to Hill decision making and to acquaint scientists who show leadership potential with the policy process," he says, adding that "we're very thankful to Jack for his help and support" in getting the fellowship going.

Fellows himself went to Washington as an American Geophysical Union Congressional Science Fellow in the early 1980s from a faculty position in hydrology at the University of Maryland. Interested in remote sensing, he divided his time between what was then called the House Science subcommittee on science and space and the office of its chair, the late Representative George Brown (D-Calif.). During his fellowship, he met Ronald Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, who asked Fellows to join the White House Office of Management and Budget. He agreed to stay at OMB for a year, "but I ended up staying for 13. So it radically changed my career path," Fellows notes.

By the time he left Washington for UCAR, Fellows had served several years as chief of the Science and Space Program Branch at OMB, which oversaw policy issues and funding associated with NASA, NSF, and the $72 billion federal research and development budget.

Tim Benner, 2000–01

Tim Benner spent his fellowship year in the office of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) working on energy and environmental issues, "mercury pollution being the biggest one." Benner has made contributions to research on and the language of two bills dealing with mercury and one dealing more generally with emissions from electric power plants.

The process of identifying a suitable place to work in Congress was "like finding a job, only [the employer] didn't have to pay anything," Benner notes. The fellows are given access to an office with reference materials, phones, and fax machines and a list of congressional offices and committees that have returned an AAAS questionnaire. Then it's a matter of dropping off résumés, making phone calls, and scheduling interviews until a suitable match between fellow and government office is made.

Benner applied to the fellowship program after completing his Ph.D. in atmospheric science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His thesis, "Radiative Transfer in Inhomogeneous Clouds," examined the structural and spatial characteristics of small tropical cumulus and looked as well at the three-dimensional radiative effects of those clouds and summertime Arctic clouds.

Of his year in Washington Benner says, "It's a great experience. You get to [see] how the whole policy process works, and politics as well." There's always a lot going on, he adds, and "you try to make some contribution," which, in Benner's case, also included drafting correspondance to federal agencies and providing policy content for the Web site. Senator Leahy's office asked Benner to stay on an extra month to finish a project. This fall, he's open to opportunities to continue his interests in policy and research.

Ana Unruh at the Great Wall of China. (Photo courtesy Ana Unruh.)

Ana Unruh, 2001–02

Ana Unruh completed a Ph.D. in earth sciences as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in July. She applied for the congressional fellowship because "this seemed like a good way to take my scientific training and expertise and put them to use toward the greater good. I'm also really interested in seeing how the nitty- gritty of our government works."

Unruh's thesis on Eurasian loess uses isotopes of lead and hafnium to "fingerprint" the material in loess plateaus (layers of dust and silt deposited by wind action) in China, Tajikistan, and Hungary and thus determine their source rocks even if those are thousands of miles away. From this record, climate-induced changes in atmospheric circulation can be inferred, as well as changes brought about by physical alteration of the landscape, such as the Tibet Plateau's uplift over the past 60 million years.

"Our best results are in China, where there's a long record—nearly eight million years. . . . The [predominant] wind in China is northwesterly, and it's been that way for roughly three million years. But prior to that it was westerly. [The wind blowing] straight west to east blew materials from the deserts that are now on the western side of the Tibetan plateau. This happened before the plateau got high enough to block those winds." To take a closer look and see some tourist sites, Unruh spent two months in China between completing her Ph.D. and moving to Washington.

With her background in geochemistry, Unruh hopes to focus on energy policy and environmental issues. She may also be calling on her international experiences during her fellowship year, given the global scope of issues like climate change. "There's a lot of science underlying those issues that probably needs to be communicated," she says.

If you know of someone who might be interested in applying for the fellowship, contact Douglas Stone at the AMS, 202-682-9006, stone@dc.ametsoc.org. There is no age restriction and Ph.D.s at any stage in their careers who are U.S. citizens may apply. The next application deadline is 1 March 2002. For more information, see the Web site below.

On the Web:
Congressional Science Fellowship


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Tue Oct 23 11:26:05 MDT 2001