AFS interviewed Dr. Reba Bandyopadhyay, AAAS policy fellow

AAAS Science and Technology policy fellowships provide opportunities to scientists and engineers to learn first-hand about policymaking and contribute their knowledge and analytical skills in the policy realm by serving in the federal government.

Disclaimer from Reba: The views and opinions expressed here are entirely my own and should not be construed to reflect or represent those of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the AAAS Fellowship program, or the National Science Foundation.

AFS: What is your background?

Reba: I was a course 8 [Physics] undergrad at MIT. I then went on to do my doctorate in Astrophysics at Oxford University in England. I did my first postdoc in the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC. I then did a second postdoc, which is common in astronomy, as a Support Astronomer at the UK National Office of the Gemini Observatory. I moved on to a grant-funded non-tenure track position as research faculty at the University of Florida. I had a good track record in research and observatory operations at that point and had served as the formal supervisor to two grad students, as well as unofficial mentor and dissertation committee member to several more. However, the funding began to dry up and I had to figure out what to do next. I decided to apply to be an AAAS Fellow both because I was frustrated with the available options within a traditional academic career path and the ever-increasing difficulty in securing grant funding, and also because of my long-standing interest in policy and government.

AFS: what do/did you study?

Reba: I made infrared and X-ray observations of binary stars that contain neutron stars or black holes. You can “see” black holes when they are part of a binary star system, because their intense gravity pulls material off their normal “companion” star into an “accretion disk” around the black hole. The process of this is so energetic that the disk and the heated part of companion star radiates X-rays.

We were hunting for black holes because they are really important- all the elements heavier than carbon and oxygen come from the deaths of massive stars.

Basically, when a star dies it turns into a white dwarf, a neutron star, or a black hole. If stars are 10 times the size of the sun or larger, interesting things happen. When they die, they go supernova- explode and implode at the same time. This creates heavy elements that fuse into iron, platinum, gold, silver, etc., seeding the “interstellar medium” – which is largely made up of hydrogen and helium – with these heavy elements. Out of the gas and dust clouds of the interstellar medium, new stars, and the planets around them, eventually start to form. This “cosmic recycling” is how stars and planets are made. We wanted to observe black holes so that we could understand basic things. How many “stellar mass” black holes are there, and what does that tell us about the life cycle and populations of stars in our Galaxy and other galaxies? This gives us clues to how and on what timescale the universe is “seeded” with the heavy elements that are needed for rocky planets like Earth, and the life on it, to form.

AFS:  What is a AAAS policy fellowship like?

Reba: There are two different kinds: an Executive Branch fellowship, which can be either one or two years long, and a Congressional fellowship, which is one year long. The Executive fellowships are paid by the federal government agencies at which the Fellows work. Generally there are about 150 new fellows per year. Congressional fellowships are sponsored by professional society partners (such as APS and AIP) and there are about 30 per year.

AFS: If you don’t mind us asking, how much is the stipend and how competitive is the application?

Reba: The stipend varies but is around 75K/year for a Congressional fellowship sponsored by one of the physics-related societies. The Executive fellowship salaries depend upon your level of experience (increasing salary with age/seniority before the fellowship) and is close to on par with the federal wage scale for government employees with PhDs. The Congressional fellowships are typically similar to a postdoc in competitiveness, e.g. with ~60-90 applicants for one available position. The Executive branch fellowships are less so, because there are more Executive branch positions available. I have done both fellowships now, and am in the first year of my Executive fellowship, so have so far spent 2 years in the program. I have renewed for a second year here at NSF so will spend a total of 3 years as an AAAS Fellow.

AFS: What are some of things you are working on in your fellowship?

Reba: In my Executive branch fellowship I work for the National Science Board, which is one of the two head offices of the NSF. The 25 members of the NSF Board have “day jobs” – university presidents/vice presidents/senior faculty, business leaders, etc. The policy team helps the Board members carry out their statutory responsibilities, including the production of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report to Congress, which comes out on January 15th of every even-numbered year. We also help to write policy briefs on relevant topics. For example, recently we issued a digital policy brief on “Higher Education as a Public and Private Good”; the report highlights why it’s worthwhile to invest public funds in higher education. These briefs get pushed out to policymakers, professional societies, universities, advocacy organizations, the media, and other science stakeholders.

In my Congressional fellowship I got to see the other side. I took a lot of meetings with interest groups, constituents, citizens groups, unions, and academics who came to advocate for their policy priorities and for or against legislation (or specific provisions within bills). I also helped to develop legislation (write bills) and meet with staff from other regarding bills and amendments that had been or might be introduced for Senate consideration. I also assisted with research on issues for briefing the Senator I worked for and for the purpose of exercising agency oversight.

AFS: How is AAAS primarily advocating and what is in the works?

Reba: AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society. It provides information to Congress on science and technology issues, including advocating on behalf of scientists and the US scientific enterprise, and assists scientists in understanding and working with Congress. It is also a scientific publisher – they publish Science magazine. They have a government relations office where they keep a close watch on the budget, bills, and government agency policies. They often take the lead in organizing coalitions of scientific societies to write letters to Congress to highlight particular concerns on pending legislation, comment/make statements on actions taken or legislation introduced by Congress, or provide information and assistance on science-related topics.

AFS: what do you think about the President’s 2016 move to put much of science funding into the mandatory category?

Reba: Many people in the science policy ecosystem understood from the outset that this idea was unlikely to get much traction in Congress. The President was trying to get around the sequestration caps but this was not going fly on Capitol Hill. Long-term sustainable bills are the way to go with a steady, predictable above-inflation increase every year.

AFS: So could we introduce a bill called the “Science Sustainability Act” or something similar?

Reba: Haha, yeah maybe.

AFS: Do you think it matters when legislators get emails from constituents?

Reba: It does matter when constituents are writing. Most (all?) Congressional offices keep some type of record of phone calls and emails from constituents. This is most effective when you have a bunch of people at same time contacting an office to highlight a specific issue or bill. The most effective form of contact is phone calls – emails do get recorded, but I always recommend that people pick up the phone and call their elected representatives if there is an issue that is important to them.

AFS: What do you think about private investment in academic research?

Reba: Private investment has a role to play – particularly in directed research with specific goals, such as in the development of new drugs – but is not sufficient for covering the costs of the type of basic “blue-sky” science that can lead to potentially transformative results and technologies.

AFS: What are your future plans and where do AAAS policy fellows typically end up?

Reba: I hope to stay in science policy. Many AAAS fellows remain in DC, either in government (agencies or Congressional staff) or working for advocacy organizations, think tanks, non-profits, etc. Somewhere between half and a third of the Fellows remain in the DC area for at least some time after their fellowship ends.

~Contributed by Dr. Christin Glorioso, Postdoctoral Associate in the Biology Department at MIT.

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