COVES Fellows Connect Science with Policy at the State Level

The Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine (VASEM) Commonwealth of Virginia Engineering & Science (COVES) Fellowship is an opportunity for early-career scientists to gain policy experience in the Virginia state government or local companies and nonprofits. Fellows Tara Illgner, Nikita Lad, and Kelsea Yarbrough share a summary of their projects and provide insights on what they found most valuable from their fellowships.

 

What are some of the projects you worked on during your fellowship? Any key outcomes you'd like to share?

Tara Illgner: This summer I was honored to be selected as a COVES Fellow, and matched with the Virginia Legislature's Joint Commission on Technology and Science (JCOTS). Most of my work was with the attorneys in the Division of Legislative Services (DLS), who are responsible for drafting any proposed legislation. These attorneys work closely with the lawmakers in JCOTS and are very knowledgeable about the goings-on in JCOTS and how to coordinate all new legislation with the existing Virginia legal code. While working with JCOTS and the attorneys at the DLS, I gained new skills and understanding about the legislative drafting process, meetings, procedures, as well as the personalities and policy landscape that determine how science can fit within policy. Specifically, I was fortunate to be able to participate in the summer legislative priorities for JCOTS, which included meetings, readings, and presentations on: (1) the Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act, (2) the proposed Child Online Protection Bill, and (3) the new VASEM Coastal Flooding Report. Lastly, my mentors at the DLS supported my efforts to bring Carbon Capture Technology discussions to JCOTS. The highlights of this work included connecting with an energy generating carbon capture company, which led to the company providing presentations to key members of JCOTS. This was an exciting outcome that may have positive implications on carbon capture technologies operating in Virginia in the future.

Nikita Lad: I was placed at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). I worked on a project that explored the evolution of any current gaps and the potential need for state policy and/or legislation regarding public funding of “basic research” at Virginia’s universities. It was an amazing experience because it allowed me to make some meaningful connections and interact directly with the policymakers and stakeholders through the interviews that I conducted. It started by looking at a few background resources regarding existing laws, policies, and practices in Virginia, followed by formulating interview questions, conducting interviews with state/government personnel both from the executive and legislative branches, universities' chief research officers, private sector CEOs, and association leaders. After analysis of data from secondary (existing laws, policies, and practices) and primary (interviewed stakeholders) sources, I put together a report of recommendations for policy-oriented and non-technical audiences such as the state policymakers and institutional leaders. My report is now shared by SCHEV’s staff with policymakers at the state and institutional levels and on their website. I presented my findings to policy leaders and was appreciated for my approach to the subject. I was also applauded for being a good listener and ability to consolidate so many different opinions and present them clearly and understandably. I am glad that I got to take the first step towards bringing “basic research funding” into Virginia’s legislature and that report would not have come to fruition without thoughtful input from professionals that I interacted with. Besides this project, I also got to attend various SCHEV meetings and understand the workings at the state level.

Kelsea Yarbrough: Amongst my projects the biggest contribution I had was helping constituents with their unemployment benefit cases with the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC). The VEC had an astounding number of backlog and active unemployment benefit cases at the time due to the pandemic. Our constituents reached out to the office, so that we could assist in clearing their cases and helping them obtain their unemployment benefits. Since the VEC cases were an integral part in my projects, I also was able to interact with the constituents and assist them with resources to help their situations. This also led to an opportunity to facilitate relationships between state agencies to solve constituent problems. I also got an opportunity to assist and facilitate basic policy research for future legislation.

 

What is the biggest lesson you learned or skill you developed through this fellowship?

Illgner: Having worked as an educator, I considered myself competent at translating science for non-scientists, by explaining science concepts in every-day terms. However, in communicating science with policymakers, I gained additional experience considering the policy perspective in my word choices, while also keeping legal definitions in mind. As a capstone project of the Fellowship with JCOTS, I gained additional practice with this skill while composing an Issue Brief on the topic of Carbon Capture Technology options for Virginia, with the guidance of the attorneys at the DLS. It was especially interesting to learn the format and practices for writing an Issue Brief that followed legal writing standards rather than scientific writing standards. 

Lad: Keeping aside my bias for science and compiling an objective non-technical report was the biggest challenge but a great learning experience for me. The interactions with the host office and stakeholders not only gave me an insight into the formulation of legislation but also taught the scientist in me the importance of viewing issues from a policymaker’s perspective. I am always grateful for the opportunity of informing policymakers based on scientifically gathered data. This project gave me a true sense of “policy for science” and taught me ways to bring all the information together and place it factually. Overall, my COVES experience was remarkable because I got to learn from other fellows as a cohort, as well as from the guest speakers' and mentors’ experiences. They inspire you to do more in this space!

Yarbrough: The biggest lesson obtained from this fellowship is how much power constituents possess to enforce new legislation. Bringing your problems/issues to your state and local officials can possibly turn into future legislation. Many people in the nation focus on federal legislation or even federal elections, when yes, federal laws can impact your life. However, state level policies/legislation affect your community and your state at a more personal level.

 

What skills or previous experiences best prepared you for this fellowship?

Illgner: As an avid consumer of news, I had observed the Virginia legislative session live-streams prior to being matched with JCOTS. Watching the sessions helped familiarize me with the rhythm, rules, relationships, personalities, and practices of Virginia's policymakers. This familiarity proved helpful during JCOTS meetings, and in interacting with the members. Additionally, having had experience speaking with members of the US congress and staff in 2019 with the UCAR Capitol Hill Scholars Program, as well as publishing several op-eds, gave me the confidence to communicate more clearly and assertively. Having strong communication skills helped our work together to be more cohesive, efficient, and enjoyable.

Lad: In my opinion, my outspokenness, previous experiences of conducting qualitative data analysis or semi-structured interviews gave me an upper hand in making this fellowship a success. Being well-organized and having clear communication skills always help in building great connections and gathering the required data.

Yarbrough: The skills that were the most helpful with this fellowship were my soft skills. The ability to converse with constituents on a personal level assisted with the process of resolving their problems and also assisted with me understanding different state and local issues that may not affect my everyday life. In turn, conversing with these constituents on a daily basis expanded my perspective on the issues happening at the state and local level.

 

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To learn more about the COVES Fellowship, follow them on Twitter: @COVES_Fellows.

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