SciPolBites: New Year, New Goals at Levels of Policy

SciPolBites is a series of reflections from NSPN members about current issues in science and policy. In this SciPolBite, two members share their perspectives on transitioning to new leadership and setting goals at different levels of policy.

Sindhu Nathan (@_sindhu42)

New Year, New Goals: A Federal Perspective

This particular new year is colored by some big changes in the federal government: a transition to a new presidential administration. Although this process ends with a lot of fanfare on Inauguration Day early in the new year, a presidential transition takes time. Months of planning, starting well before election day, take place for both the incumbent and challenger campaigns. Back in June 2020, both now-President Biden’s and former-President Trump’s campaigns announced preliminary teams - separate from the campaigns - that would build out the policy plans for their prospective administrations. These leaders were tasked with turning campaign promises into action by identifying the right personnel to advise and lead policy issues and to develop clear plans of action for the first 100-200 days of governing.

But how does that actually work?

Before the election, this means vetting potential high-level appointees, identifying Agency Review Teams, and determining the key policy priorities you’ll be acting upon if you win the election (after all, there’s only 78 days between Election Day and Inauguration Day to turn promises into something actionable!). Basically, get as much of the administrative work out of the way as possible.

After the election - once the General Services Administration recognizes the results of the election and grants federal resources to the process -  this means conducting a deep dive into the government. Where does new staff need to be hired? Will a new office/position need to be announced? What expertise is currently missing? What is the low-hanging fruit? What can be done if your party has a majority in the legislature (and what if you don’t)? This involves talking to civil servants, Congressional staff, state and local officials, and academic and NGO leaders. The transition must then use this information to announce the first (of almost 4000) political appointees that will lead the agencies and offices in the new administration (most of these are Senate-confirmed positions; see the Plum Book to learn which).

For the new Biden-Harris administration, we have heard about their priorities of COVID-19, the economy/employment, climate change, and racial equity. Now that we’re beyond January 20th, it’s time to put those plans into action. The administration has already come out with some executive orders and proposed legislation to tackle these priorities - made possible by the tireless work of the transition team over the past several months. It remains to be seen how much will get done and what lasting impacts these policies will have, but we can already tell this will be an exciting and important moment in American history.

For more info, check out the Presidential Transition Guide!

Matthew Diasio (@MatSciMatt)

New Year, New Goals: A State Perspective

When people think about science policy in the United States, it’s most common to think of the federal government’s role. The President has their science advisor and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Universities receive funding through grants from agencies like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Agencies such as NASA, the CDC, and the Department of Energy host significant research labs of their own. Congress and federal agencies regulate healthcare, environmental pollution, and new technologies and convene experts for hearings and panels. While the ways science can impact state and local policy has been thrust into the spotlight by the COVID-19 pandemic, states have been grappling with science and technology issues long before. Several states have proposed their own laws regulating technology, such as in Internet privacy or how state agencies can use facial recognition programs. States fund research to encourage economic development.

As states increasingly grapple with science and technology policy, there’s a growing need for their own sources of technical advice. North Carolina established the Policy Collaboratory in 2016 to help disseminate policy-relevant research on issues related to health and the environment. The California Council on Science and Technology has provided independent policy assessments to California’s government for over 30 years and launched the first of a growing movement of state science policy fellowships similar to those at the federal level. While I was a graduate student at UVA, I applied for an NSPN microgrant to develop a state-level fellowship in Virginia. The microgrant let us travel to meet policymakers across the state to discuss how a fellowship could work and NSPN helped us make important connections for support. In 2020, the Commonwealth of Virginia Engineering and Science Fellowship was launched with its inaugural fellowship cohort.

In NPSN, I’ve met many other early-career researchers interested in state and local opportunities in science policy. The State Fellowships Committee is where members share resources and advice on efforts to develop science policy fellowships in their own states and are working to develop resources for future efforts. Whether you want to learn more about what fellowship programs exist or are interested in starting an effort in your own state, come join us for a meeting!

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