New State Fellowships Committee Gathers Resources for Scientists to Engage at the Local Level

The National Science Policy Network (NSPN) was established to create a community of early-career scholars who are interested in supporting each other in science policy-related opportunities. With the transition to new leadership, NSPN also established an ad hoc State Fellowships Committee to collect and share resources about STEM policy fellowships in state governments. We caught up with Chair Melody Tan about the developing efforts of this new committee. Melody, a Bioengineering PhD candidate at Rice University, has been developing a science and technology policy fellowship in Texas over the past several months and brings a lot of valuable insight and experience to this new committee.

What can a state-level science and technology policy fellowship (STPF) accomplish?

The shared goal of state science and technology fellowships is for fellows to employ their scientific training and expertise to support evidence-based policymaking within their host offices. In addition, the fellowship experience is an incredible learning opportunity for the fellows and promotes lifelong policy engagement. There are many program models — some have fellows working with state legislatures, and others with executive agencies, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, or a combination.

What got you interested in state fellowships and organizing your own? Can you talk a little about the different steps involved in launching a new fellowship program?

My involvement began at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting, when I attended a session on state level fellowships with Anna Hagstrom, who is now the inaugural Connecticut fellow with their state environmental protection agency. After the meeting, NSPN member Matthew Diasio, one of Virginia’s STPF program founders, invited me to collaborate on a white paper. Working with a multi-state group of NSPN members, we wrote and published Developing Science and Technology Policy Fellowships in State Governments without Full-Time Legislatures in the Journal of Science Policy & Governance (JSPG), which discusses program models and examines opportunities for fellowships in several states with hybrid legislative models. I started thinking seriously about whether it was feasible to establish a fellowship program in Texas.

This past spring, I channeled my frustrations around the lack of evidence-based policymaking in response to COVID-19 into building a pilot program to work with the Texas Legislature during our upcoming legislative session. The early stages involved a lot of conversations with Texas stakeholders and program founders and advisors from other states — including policy expert Debbie Stine and the Missouri STPF program director Rachel Owen — which helped me articulate a vision for my program. Next, I brought on Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and The Academy for Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas as sponsors and gathered some financial support for the program. I am currently working on fellow placements and will be opening applications within the next month.

I’ll be honest, creating this program has been a difficult process while also finishing my PhD — which was the motivation for leading this committee and improving support structures for leaders of emerging programs. Nevertheless, I think it’s been so important for me to pursue this vision, start somewhere, pilot the program, and then learn and build from there. If anything, COVID-19 is my constant reminder of the immediate importance of evidence-based policymaking!

What do you aim for the Committee to accomplish (i.e., what gaps do you seek to fill)? What resources are available and/or are you seeking to generate some new resources for people starting their own STPFs?

The State Fellowships Committee is dedicated to building collaborations and sharing resources between state level science and technology policy initiatives across the country (check out the JSPG article for some examples of existing programs). The foundation of our work involves assessing the needs of current and emerging programs. In response, we are collaborating on the initiatives described below. We will also continue adapting to be responsive to other needs as they arise. Some of the key things the committee is focused on creating are:

Community resources: We are developing shared resources capturing program structure (e.g., duration, fellow placements) and best practices from programs across the country. Current work in progress includes Airtables overviewing program information, a Google Drive folder with resources and sample documents (e.g., fellow contracts, orientation materials), and a handbook capturing best practices and lessons learned.

National mentor network: To support the growing number of new state level programs, we are working to establish a mentor network to provide additional guidance to new or planned fellowship programs (including for state STPF organizers beyond NSPN). We are planning to recruit program founders and directors, funders, and former fellows to serve as mentors.

Workshop opportunities: We are creating opportunities for early stage program leaders to workshop any challenging aspects of program development (e.g., fundraising, recruiting program sponsors) during our monthly committee meetings and additional events.

Who should get involved with this Committee?

We welcome anyone who has an interest in state level policy and building collaborations nationwide — you do not already have to be involved with a specific program to contribute!

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If you’re interested in starting a state policy fellowship program in your state or getting involved with the State Fellowships Committee, please reach out to! The committee has monthly Zoom meetings (usually mid-month) and coordinates scheduling and other updates on the NSPN Slack #statefellowships channel.

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