by Alex Belles (Guest, Pennsylvania)
Alex Belles is a 4th year PhD candidate studying Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State University. He uses an ultraviolet optical telescope to study interstellar dust in nearby galaxies. Neil Gerel’s Swift Observatoryhe recently NASEM Mirzayan Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy Fellow and worked with them Space Research Committeeresponsible organization Astro2020 Decade SurveyIn today’s tidbit, he shares his experience with this fellowship and his plunge into science policy as a PhD student in astronomy.
I had always been interested in government, but I never imagined that I could combine that with my interest in astronomy and science. (CVD) to learn about potential opportunities in science policy. In spring 2022, I further explored science policy as a potential career option by joining the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Medicine (NASEM). In today’s article, I will talk about how I became interested in policy, Mirzayan’s experiences with her fellowship, and how to get involved in science policy.
Early in the pandemic, I started thinking about what I wanted for my future career. I decided that I didn’t want to go into academia after grad school, so I began to seriously consider whether I should pursue a PhD or graduate with a master’s degree. Data Science is the most talked about ‘alternative’ career path for a PhD in Astronomy, but I wanted to explore other options. I focused on science policy as a possible career path. I had enjoyed the experience of advocating for scientific funding to Congressional representatives for CVD, and I knew of his fellowship, Mirzayan, thanks to a faculty member I had joined after completing graduate school. So I applied for a fellowship and was accepted into the Spring 2022 program.
For some background, the National Academy of Sciences was founded in 1863 and served as the national adviser to science and technology. Today, the National Academies are her three prestigious societies in science, engineering, and medicine, and the entire organization (NASEM) advises governments through research and reporting. Units within NASEM contract with government agencies that require independent expert advice. These reports may be mandated by Congress. Academy staff will help convene panels of experts and organize meetings to gather information on the issue at hand. The committee typically reaches scientific consensus and produces a report of its findings and recommendations to the sponsoring agency. All Academy reports are available online and many of the meetings will be live streamed.
The Mirzayan Fellowship is a 12-week crash course in the world of science policy and national academies. Fellows are matched with specific units within the Academy that focus on specific areas. I was matched with the Space Studies Board (SSB) in charge of his decade study for Astro2020. The Fellowship is a full-time commitment in Washington, DC, where you will spend approximately half of your time on Fellowship activities and professional development, and the other half on Board work. With the support of my advisor and department to explore career options away from studies, I moved to DC from March 2022 until he May 2022 because of this experience.
Once inside, I knew a little bit about how the National Academy of Sciences would work, with the huge impact of the Decadal Survey on astronomy. , indicated mission priorities for the next decade. Space telescopes such as Chandra, Spitzer, Webb and Roman, and ground-based telescopes such as VLA, ALMA and Rubin/LSST were all prior Decadal priorities, demonstrating the immense impact these reports have. . He was excited about the opportunity to work on policy issues related to space science, but three months is not enough time, especially when his 10-year study is a multi-year project. However, the Academy, especially the Space Research Commission, does much more than just the Decade. Recent examples include Diversity Equity his inclusion and accessibility on competing NASA missions, detecting dangerous asteroids, and searching for life in space.
During that time, I worked on projects related to planetary protection policy (not to mention planetary defense!), helped run workshops on space weather, and participated in various academy activities such as the Decade of Planetary Science and Astrobiology. I was able to participate. Briefing on release, reporting to the Decade of Biological and Physical Sciences in Space, Congress, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, NASA, and NSF. A study is an inch wide and a mile deep, but my experience with SSB was just the opposite. I just scratched the surface of various topics outside my area of expertise, and it was exciting and refreshing.
One of the greatest benefits of this experience was the opportunity to network with astronomers and other scientists involved in a variety of policy work. It was very helpful to learn about other post-doctoral opportunities, such as the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship and the Presidential Management Fellowship, as it is difficult for faculty to advise students on careers outside of academia. There are also employment opportunities, such as jobs in government affairs at universities and private companies, congressional staff, and other federal agencies such as NASA, NSF, NIST, NOAA, and DOE. One of my favorite experiences was attending the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s Markup Hearings, where senators debate and amend proposed legislation. Congressional hearings are usually political theater, but it was very interesting to hear senators discussing laws ranging from blockchain to gas prices.
Thanks to the Mirzayan Fellowship, I was able to refocus on my PhD. You don’t need a PhD to work in policy, but a PhD is certainly useful because many of the easiest paths into policy for scientists require a final degree. The experience gave him the extra push he needed after a difficult two years due to the pandemic. Having a clear end goal of working in policy after graduate school makes the journey easier. If you have an interest in science policy, get involved through programs such as CVD to stay up to date on issues relevant to your field, watch Congressional hearings and his NASEM conferences, and join advocacy groups. You can
Overall, the Mirzayan Fellowship was a wonderful experience that I would recommend to anyone interested in policy. A 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 the long term if it doesn’t suit you in the end. There is none. The Mirzayan Fellowship is offered annually and typically has 25 participants in all scientific disciplines. With the breadth of our national academies, there are opportunities in all areas of policy that someone might be passionate about: climate, AI, health, transportation, and more. The next application cycle will begin on August 1, 2022 and the application deadline is October 31, 2022.
Editing: Briley Lewis, Mike Foley, Graham Doscotch
Featured Image Credits: Nasem