Interested in expanding your non-academic experience? Consider a policy fellowship.
On this page we present the highlights of two major science policy fellowship programs available in Canada and the US: the Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellowship (CSPF) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy (STP) Fellowship. This guide was written by Britta Voss, a 2017-19 AAAS STP Fellow placed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Lushani Nanayakkara, a 2018-19 Mitacs Fellow placed in the Fish and Fish Habitat Protection Program (FFHPP) at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. We hope ASLO members interested in expanding their experience outside of academia find the information below informative and helpful.
Where are fellows placed?
Over the first three years of the program (2016-17; 2017-18; 2018-19), 35 fellows were paired with 15 federal departments:
- Agriculture and Agri-food Canada
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency
- Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission
- Department of Fisheries and Oceans
- Defence Research and Development Canada
- Employment and Social Development
- Environment and Climate Change Canada
- Global Affairs Canada
- Health Canada
- Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada
- International Development Research Centre
- Natural Resources Canada
- Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council
- Office of the Auditor General
- Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
British Columbia (BC) ministries have hosted 18 fellows with the following 10 provincial ministries over the 2017-18 and 2018-19 cohorts:
- Advanced Education, Skills and Training
- Children and Family Development
- Emergency Management BC
- Forest, Lands and Natural Resources Operations and Rural Development
- Jobs, Trades and Technology
- Public Service Agency of BC
- Office of the Solicitor General
- Tourism, Arts and Culture
CSPF press releases for each cohort provide more detail on the topics covered during the fellowships:
And the Look Book examines some of the policy challenges faced by fellows embedded in various government departments and ministries and the evidence-informed outcomes of their work. For example, a fellow with expertise in microbiology and former intern with the World Health Organization was paired with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to lead an international biosafety network working to strengthen international response and protocols to high-consequence diseases.
AAAS STP Fellows have served in a wide range of government offices since the fellowship began in 1973. Initially fellows were only placed in legislative offices, but the program has since expanded to include numerous executive branch offices. Most legislative fellows are hosted by partner societies spanning a wide range of scientific disciplines. Once selected, these fellows are placed in a personal office (serving a particular Senator or Congressperson) or a Congressional committee. Executive branch fellows, in contrast, apply directly to AAAS, and are placed with offices seeking a fellow. The distribution of available positions varies from year to year, but examples of agencies which have hosted executive branch fellows include:
- National Science Foundation
- Environmental Protection Agency
- National Institutes of Health
- Department of Energy
- Department of State
- Department of Defense
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- U.S. Geological Survey
- National Institute of Standards and Technology
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
- Department of Justice
- U.S. Agency for International Development
- U.S. Department of Agriculture
ASLO members interested in exploring specific fellowship profiles can search the STPF directory.
What are the fellowship programs like?
The Mitacs CSPF is a pilot program which began in 2016 through a partnership with the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy and Mitacs’ university partners. It was modeled after the successful AAAS STP Fellowship (STPF), which has operated for over 45 years. During the inaugural year of the program, 11 fellows were paired with eight different federal departments. Beginning with the 2017-18 cohort, Mitacs extended the pilot through a partnership with the BC provincial government. Over the course of three years, 53 fellowships have been completed with 15 federal departments and 10 BC ministries. Each cohort runs from September – August.
The CSPF program supports the building of science capacity in government and policy capacity among program fellows. The fellowship offers a 12-month immersive placement into government policy, where fellows contribute their expertise to a broad range of issues and policy activities. Government host offices gain access to current, specialized academic expertise to address unique policy challenges, while fellows learn how to apply their research-based skill sets in a public policy context. Throughout the fellowship year, Mitacs provides professional development and networking opportunities to enhance fellows’ policy-related knowledge, capabilities, and networks. The primary goals of the program are to:
- Forge strong relationships between government and academia
- Contribute to science policy capacity in the Canadian government
- Develop a network of expertise in science policy among academic researchers
- Contribute to evidence-informed decision making in the Canadian public service
The first AAAS STPF cohort placed 7 fellows in legislative branch offices. Today, over 250 new fellows are placed every year across legislative and executive branch offices. The fellowship term runs from September 1st to August 31st. All fellows serve for one year, and executive branch fellows may extend their fellowship for a second year.
There is no template for a fellow's experience. Fellows contribute to their office's objectives and typically take on a portfolio of projects and issue areas, but they also enjoy a degree of independence and flexibility that is unique in public service that allows them to explore adjacent issues and professional development opportunities. AAAS supports this exploration by providing events and fora for fellows to network within the STPF community and across the Washington D.C. science policy landscape, ranging from STPF professional development workshops to events like the Golden Goose Awards.
Separate from the federal AAAS STPF program, science policy fellowships in state governments have begun to spread across the United States. The first state to create a science policy fellowship program was California, which launched the California Council of Science and Technology (CCST) fellowship in 2010. The CCST fellowship places 10 fellows each year in state legislative offices. In recent years, additional states have pursued launching their own programs. State governments vary across the country in their size, structure, and annual schedule, so each state's program will be unique. These programs offer an exciting new avenue for scientists and engineers who want to engage with policy at the state level or work on issues of particular relevance to different regions.
What is the application process like?
The call for candidates opens in November in the year prior to the fellowship year and closes in early February. Interested candidates complete an online webform and must provide two letters of reference. Candidates must be Canadian Citizens or permanent residents and have a PhD in any discipline by the start of the fellowship year.
During the initial year of the program, there was a simultaneous call for fellow candidates and host departments. Fellow candidates submitted applications that were blind to the host offices and projects available and were only introduced to potential hosts and the hosts’ projects at the interview stage.
During years 2 and 3, host offices submitted project descriptions to Mitacs ahead of the candidate call. Candidates then applied directly to the host projects which were posted to the Mitacs website.
For the 2019-20 call, Mitacs reintroduced the inaugural year’s blind application process and moved away from the project-based focus of the previous two years. Host “projects” were broadened into “positions” within the host office and were not posted for fellows to apply to specifically. Rather, fellows apply to the program as-a-whole. Acceptance of fellows into the program is based on excellence in research, leadership, communication, and commitment to the objectives of the program, rather than on interest in a specific host project. Fellow applicants see the position description for specific host offices once they have been selected for an interview with those hosts.
Adjudication and shortlisting of applicants
- Each fellow application is reviewed by two members of an adjudication committee, which includes prior fellows
- The adjudicators evaluate applications based on research excellence, leadership and communication qualities, and the applicant’s commitment to the objectives of the program
- The adjudication committee develops a shortlist of semi-finalists and this list is presented to the host offices for review
- Government hosts select those semi-finalist(s) they would like to interview and contact the applicant(s) directly
Host and fellow ranking and matching
- After interviews, both semi-finalists and hosts submit rankings
- Mitacs will use the rankings to match hosts and semi-finalists based on mutual interest and fit
- Successfully matched fellows begin their placements in September of each year
The executive branch application closes on November 1st of the year prior to the beginning of the fellowship term. Selection committees are composed of representatives from academia, federal agencies, private and nonprofit sectors, AAAS staff, and STPF alumni. Three external reviewers evaluate each application, and their scores are used to select semi-finalists. Applications are evaluated for the following criteria:
- Scientific/technical background and professional accomplishment
- Communication, interpersonal, and outreach skills
- Leadership and potential
- Commitment to AAAS STPF objectives and opportunities
- Problem-solving abilities
Semi-finalists are notified in February and AAAS conducts videoconference interviews to select finalists. Finalists are invited to Washington D.C. for a week in April to interview with host offices for specific positions. Following the interviews, AAAS uses the rankings from finalists and host offices to match fellows with an office.
Legislative fellows apply through one of over 30 partner societies, such as the American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, and American Geosciences Institute (for a full list of partner societies hosting STP fellows, see this page). Societies set the terms and timeline of their applications, so prospective candidates should check the requirements of the society they plan to apply through. Once selected, legislative fellows join the executive branch cohort at STPF orientation in Washington D.C. in September. Following orientation, legislative fellows interview with potential host offices and are placed immediately before starting their fellowship.
Executive branch applicants must be U.S. citizens and have completed a PhD in a scientific discipline or a Master’s degree in an engineering discipline. Fellows range from freshly minted PhDs to established academic faculty and everywhere in between. Some new fellows have purely academic backgrounds and some have experiences in other fields such as business, law, medicine, nonprofit management, and many others. The one thing they all share is a desire to use their technical expertise to support evidence-based decision-making on important societal issues. Prospective fellows can participate in live video chats with current and alumni fellows to ask questions about crafting a successful application and other aspects of being an STP fellow.
What kind of work do fellows do?
Science policy occurs at all levels of government. The use of scientific evidence to inform policy-making - “science for policy” - is distinct from policy for administering science systems - “policy for science.” Science policy, understood as science for policy, involves relaying scientific advice to policy-makers to help inform decision-making, through formal and informal channels, using skills that effectively translate specialized knowledge for ready use by policy-makers.
Fellows are ambassadors of science in the public service. They not only represent themselves during their fellowship, but also the fellowship program, its supporters, academia, and their host offices. Fellows apply their expert knowledge to policy processes including:
- Problem framing
- Policy formulation
- Monitoring and evaluation
Fellows are also involved in policy activities such as:
- Preparation of briefing and speaking notes
- Senior decision maker briefings
- Supporting work of committees
- Stakeholder meetings and/or consultation management
The work fellows do varies tremendously depending on the nature of their office and their own interests. A few broad categories of science policy work AAAS STP fellows engage in include policy analysis; science communication; program evaluation, management, or implementation; and engagement with other agencies or non-governmental stakeholders.
Policy analysis is a major focus for many fellows working in legislative offices, as well as some executive branch offices. Fellows help their office keep track of science and technology-related legislation and issues and translate technical information for other staff and constituents. This frequently takes the form of policy briefs or memos: short summaries of an issue, topic, or bill which lay out in clear, concise language the key components and relevant policy aspects or possible policy solutions. In a legislative office, a fellow may also help draft hearing questions for members of Congress to ask of witnesses, public statements on scientific topics, and possibly even legislation.
Science communication is critical regardless of what kind of office a fellow works in. Whether a fellow is working primarily on a topic close to their area of expertise or in a completely new subject area, they are often called on to explain complex technical issues for non-expert audiences within and outside their office. This can take the form of briefs and memos as described above, as well as presentations, reports, infographics, website content, blogs, videos, and any other communication materials the office uses to discuss their work internally and externally. STP fellows rely heavily on the science communication skills they have acquired translating their own research, and any other science communication experience they may have, and they strengthen and hone these skills throughout their time in the fellowship.
Some executive branch fellows are placed in offices that manage research and development grant programs and other Congressionally mandated science and technology initiatives. To support this work, fellows might travel to national labs or academic institutions around the country to meet with funding recipients and stakeholders. Fellows can help collect and synthesize information about how funds are being used and help grantees and stakeholders understand the objectives of the program to ensure ongoing success and plan for future initiatives. From their technical background, fellows have a wealth of knowledge about managing complex, long-term, collaborative research projects which is extremely useful in supporting evaluation, management, and implementation of federal research and development programs.
Fellows often also play important roles in cross-agency collaboration and external engagement activities. Coming into an office from the outside and being embedded in the multi-disciplinary, multi-agency STPF program, fellows bring a fresh perspective and new connections to federal offices. Many offices value fellows' tendencies to build new relationships between their host office and other groups inside or outside government working on related issues. They can leverage the vast network of current and former STP fellows to integrate outside information and make novel insights for their office. Given the size and bureaucratic processes of the federal government, this flexibility and new perspective can be a tremendous asset to agencies and Congress.
These are only a few examples of the types of work fellows do. The specific projects and activities vary significantly, with fellows working on issues as diverse as broadening participation in STEM higher education, cybersecurity risks of Internet of Things devices, international cooperation in climate mitigation, and multitudes more.
What do fellows do after their fellowship?
Following the inaugural fellowships that took place between September 2016 and August 2017, five fellows remained in government, three returned to academia, and three pursued other opportunities, including non-governmental policy roles.
Of the 21 fellows from 2017-18, 12 went on to government positions, four returned to academia, four went on to other opportunities and one completed a second fellowship year.
STPF alumni enter a wide variety of careers following their fellowships. According to AAAS, roughly half of former fellows are working in some type of science policy role, a quarter return to their previous field, and the remainder pursue other fields. Former STP fellows are scattered across the federal government as well as academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, private industry, and many other areas.