The Jefferson Science Fellowship - Integrating Science into Diplomacy

bridges vol. 10, June 29 / Feature Articles
by Caroline Adenberger

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"American science must enlighten American statecraft," said then-Secretary of State Colin Powell when introducing the first Jefferson Science Fellows (JSF) to the State Department in May 2004. The JSF program's main goal is to bring together senior scientists with policy makers at the US State Department to formulate and implement US foreign policy issues.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}The idea of science shaping policy making is far from a new one in the United States: Thomas Jefferson, in whose honor the fellowship is named, was already convinced more than two centuries ago that reason and scientific progress were the factors that would define the glorious future of the United States. Jefferson, apart from writing the Declaration of Independence and being President of the United States, was an accomplished architect himself who devoted his spare time to archaeology, agricultural science, etymology, mathematics, etc., and also founded the University of Virginia. He saw in science and invention the greatest likelihood of achieving social progress and providing opportunities for "the pursuit of happiness," as visualized in the Declaration, which he had crafted. Science, to Jefferson, was an extension, a tool to help bring about his enlightened political philosophy and a way within which to lead his life.

Jefferson's vision of the fruitful partnership between science and statesmanship is still alive today, even if it is sometimes clouded by the dark shadows of the misuse of science in policy making: With news like the exposure of the former oil industry employee, who allegedly edited climate change reports from the White House, Jefferson is probably turning over in his grave.

But Jefferson's basic idea of the benefits that science could bring to humanity is more often applied in the way he had foreseen. Scientific and policy-making communities seek to strengthen their bonds with well-established programs like the fellowships from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and from the American Institute of Physics (AIP). By bringing scientists into many types of federal policy-making institutions like Congress, and various federal departments, etc., these programs, as with the JSF program, enable the Fellows to contribute their expertise and knowledge to scientific and technological aspects of policy issues.

Two hundred years after Thomas Jefferson was statesman, scientist, and a great visionary all in one, George H. Atkinson, current science & technology advisor to the secretary of state (who himself served as the first AIP Senior Fellow for Science, Technology, and Diplomacy in 2001-2002) and initiator of the Jefferson Science Fellowship program, describes the nature of the program as follows: "[It] initiates a fundamentally new relationship between the US academic S&T community and the US Department of State . . . it illustrates a commitment to make science and technology a critical part of the formulation and implementation of US foreign policy."

Educating people - not alienating

But although the mission of programs such as the JSF seems to be straightforward, the implementation of it in day-to-day life faces some obstacles: Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), a scientist himself, with a Ph.D. in physics (and, as such, one of only two among the 540 members of Congress who holds a Ph.D. in the sciences), couched it right at the JSF symposium at the National Academies on June 15 when he stressed the biggest challenge in communicating science to a non-scientist. The major task - before even dwelling on the actual scientific question - is to convince people that everyone is able to catch on to science. "People always think they are not able to understand scientific matters," Rush explains, "but the truth is, anybody can do it. We have to communicate to non-scientists that one does not need to be a member of the rocket science fraternity to be able to understand scientific issues."

His opinion was reinforced by Dr. Alexander King, a materials engineering professor from Purdue University, who has been part of the first-year group of scientists that joined the State Department through the JSF program. He observed during his year with the State Department that "[the] science illiteracy in the State Department is very similar to the science illiteracy of the whole country." So it happened that, at the beginning of his time as "science advisor" to the Bureau of African Affairs where he was assigned, many files were put on his desk because of his co-workers' thinking that "if we can't understand it, it must be science."

Programs like the Jefferson Science Fellowship program certainly should improve this situation. But they are far more than just a special science education opportunity for foreign policy makers. By observing and participating in day-to-day American foreign policy, scientists who have spent much of their (research) careers in university labs gain insight into how science and statecraft can work together to improve the lives of people around the globe. And once they return to academia, they are able to take that very special experience along with them and bring it into the lab or the classroom.

This year, the initial three-year pilot phase of the Jefferson Science Fellowship program comes to an end. During the last three years, the program has mainly been supported by the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation; it now remains to be seen how the future of the program will be shaped.

In the following interview, bridges spoke with one of the "pioneers" of the program, Prof. Julian Adams, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan. Dr. Adams was selected in 2004 to be part of the first-year group of scientists to work as a JSF fellow at the State Department. He was assigned to the Bureau of Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade at the US Agency for International Development (USAID/EGAT):

bridges: What is special about the JSF program and what made you decide to pursue the JSF program?

adams_julian_captionThe long-term goal of the JSF program is to create ties between the academic scientific and diplomatic establishments in the US. Although it is not the only program that places scientists in positions as advisors in the State Department, it does have several features which distinguish it from the other programs. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has long sponsored a program to place junior-level scientists (most of whom have recently received their Ph.D.s and have not held academic faculty positions) in the State Department or in the USAID. This program has a long and distinguished history, and many of these AAAS diplomacy fellows end up in permanent positions and become key members of the science corps at the State Department and USAID. In contrast, the Jefferson Science Fellows must be tenured faculty members from a US institution of higher learning. They spend only one year in the State Department, on leave from their university. After returning to their institutions at the end of that year, Jefferson Science Fellows are expected to remain available as consultants over the next five years. I was attracted to the program, as I have long been interested in the role science plays in shaping public policy. I feel that academic scientists who are supported by public funds have an obligation to transmit and explain developments in their field to non-scientists and to the public in general. For several years, I have greatly enjoyed teaching a course in "Genetics and Society" to non-science majors. I saw the Jefferson Science Fellowship as a way in which I could translate my interests in the relationship between science and public policy into action.

bridges: Could you please describe the application/selection process?

To apply for a Jefferson Science Fellowship, one has to fill out an application form, attach a curriculum vitae, and ask three to five referees to send letters of support. In addition, one must submit two short position papers (two pages each) concerned with the societal and foreign policy impact of recent advances in science and technology. Another important component of the application process is a memorandum of understanding from the applicant's academic institution, granting applicants a year's leave of absence if chosen. Finalists are invited to Washington, DC, for interviews with the selection committee. Members of this committee, which is divided into three interviewing panels, may be diplomats including former ambassadors, administrators, and scientists, as well as representatives of some national scientific societies.

bridges: What sort of tasks can a JSF fellow expect?

Approximately two months before our fellowships began, we were given a binder containing 26 statements of work or projects, which covered an exceedingly broad range of projects. Some of these projects were quite narrow in focus and to a certain extent reflected the different backgrounds of the fellows in the first year's cohort - biology, chemistry, and engineering. Others, however, required a broad understanding and knowledge of recent developments in science and technology.

bridges: Were you able to choose the institution at the State Department to which you were eventually assigned?

Selection of an assignment was a two-way process and lasted approximately a month. During this period, fellows talked with the personnel in the offices from which the work statements originated. Over the course of the month, there was a general convergence on the most appropriate assignments for each fellow. No one was disappointed.

bridges: What were the projects you worked on during your fellowship? How did your background in genetics help you perform your tasks?

I worked on two projects that were, in some ways, logical extremes of one another. One was very broad and consisted of the development of a bilateral cooperative science and technology program with a developing country, while the other concerned the application of molecular genetics to generating new crop varieties. For the former, my research background in genetics mattered quite little. However, in the execution of this project, my administrative experience as department chair at the University of Michigan, as well as some 15 years experience serving on NIH review panels, were very useful. For the latter project, my research background obviously helped; however, the application of genetics is only part of the story. I discovered that I had much to learn about the public policy dimensions of the issues and how they intersected with the scientific dimensions. As a research scientist, one spends most of one's career learning, and so I found this aspect of the project particularly enjoyable.

bridges: Can you give us some examples how your expertise influenced and shaped the decisions of policy makers you were working with?

I was lucky enough to work in a group composed of very intelligent individuals who were also wonderful human beings. The environment was extremely stimulating and for the most part we worked as a team. Thus, it is difficult for me to come up with specific examples of how my expertise shaped the decisions of policy makers. However, I do like to think that I was able to contribute in a positive way to the team's work.

bridges: You were a JSF "pioneer," nominated in the very first year of the program's existence. What were the major challenges during your time at the USAID?

I honestly have to say that I faced no major challenges working at USAID. Generally the atmosphere there was very open, very much like a university where interactions at all levels were easily generated. Two main factors encourage this openness at USAID. First, there is less of an administrative hierarchy than there is at the State Department. Second, everyone I met during my time there was passionately committed to development work, that is, alleviation of poverty and the improvement of the health and well-being of the less fortunate in the world. Naturally, conflicts arose from time to time, much as they would in any workplace populated with hardworking, intelligent, and ambitious individuals. However, in my experience, my colleagues at USAID always seemed able to relegate such tensions to the background and were able to focus on the main goal and mission of USAID. In short, there were occasionally ripples on a calm sea, but they never assumed the size of waves.

bridges: How does this experience compare to your academic work?

My time at the university is divided between teaching and research. Much of one's research time is devoted to quite detailed work: analysis of results of individual experiments, dissection of experimental protocols, and determination of which experiments, under what conditions, to carry out next. Discussions surrounding this aspect of research most often take place with just one other person - a technician, a postdoctoral fellow, or a graduate student. Larger questions, such as the general direction of a research program, are usually formulated or addressed alone. In contrast, most of the work at USAID takes place within teams. Although the detailed aspect of research does not have much parallel with my work at USAID, the formulation of the larger questions, and the determination of the overall direction of the research and which strategy to employ, require a similar set of problem solving skills.

bridges: After the year in DC, what were the challenges of transitioning back to academia?

I did not have many difficulties transitioning back to academia. Throughout my year in Washington, I still maintained an active research laboratory at the University of Michigan, and I would meet with my laboratory personnel during visits back to the university approximately once every two weeks. So my return to the university simply involved a reallocation of effort, rather than a complete change.

bridges: Are you still working with the State Department on short-term projects?

Yes. In fact I am probably traveling more for USAID now than I was during my year in Washington.

bridges: What have been the most rewarding experiences of this fellowship?

Undoubtedly, the most rewarding aspect of my time in Washington was learning and gaining an appreciation of the public policy dimensions of science and technology. As a result, I was able to incorporate a number of changes into my course, "genetics and society," and I believe that it has been significantly improved. In addition, I greatly enjoyed working with a highly intelligent and committed group of individuals at USAID.

bridges: What do you envision for the future of this program?

I would hope that the program has a bright future. There is apparently no shortage of senior faculty members in US universities who are interested in spending a year in the Department of State. The cultures of science and of diplomacy are quite different, and the main challenge for the Department of State is to learn how best to utilize Jefferson Science Fellows.



For readers interested in learning more about the Jefferson Science Fellowship program, please visit

Benson, G. Randolph. (1971). Thomas Jefferson as Social Scientist.{/access}