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Forwarding Science Policy: Congressional Fellow Report January 2007

Eleanore B. Edson is the 2006-2007 SPIE-OSA Congressional Fellow working in Washington, D.C., in the office of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY).
As a scientist, I recall being transfixed by the beautiful images of neurons captured by electron or confocal microscopy. But despite my fascination with the intricacies and elegance of the brain, I aspired to a career that would allow me to address numerous scientific issues and apply my scientific fluency toward clear dialogues with the general public about the impact of scientific research on society. I was also keenly interested in learning why and how policy makers either dismiss or heed scientific findings. Hence, I desired exposure to the alchemy of policy, politics, and procedures on The Hill. 
This past September, my Congressional Fellowship was preceded by a two-week orientation organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and followed by two weeks of interviews on Capitol Hill. The AAAS orientation provided the Science & Technology Policy fellows with a broad overview of how science and technology policy is conducted in Washington, and gave fellows exceptional access and exposure to experienced policy analysts, diplomats, science journalists, and other professionals.
Frequent interactions between Congressional and Executive Branch fellows led to a genuine camaraderie that is now put to use in many informal study groups, which focus on issues such as sustainability, energy, and nanotechnology. Moreover, substantial support and consultation occurred amongst the Congressional fellows during our interviewing period. Indeed, these close professional associations constitute a genuine fellowship.
I ultimately accepted an offer to join Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health staff, one of the hardest working legislative teams in Senator Clinton’s office. Senator Clinton serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee; the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee; the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee; and the Special Committee on Aging. As a health legislative fellow, my purview includes policy related to all these committees except EPW.
Specifically, I am the point-person for legislation related to mental health, substance abuse, aging, and military health. My chief responsibilities are to build support and momentum for the reintroduction of pending legislation, and to conceive and develop new health policy legislation or initiatives. As a legislative fellow, I also draft background memos, floor statements, talking points, reports, letters, and charts related to issues in my policy portfolio. This past December, I had the honor of drafting Senator Clinton’s Statement for the Record on the Lifespan Respite Care Act, which successfully passed both the Senate and House of Representatives and was signed into law by President Bush on 21 December 2006.
In addition to her committee assignments, Senator Clinton is also a co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer’s Disease, for which I am the lead staffer. After only two months in my current position, I designed and organized a Congressional briefing on Alzheimer’s disease research, for which I drafted the press release and Senator Clinton’s talking points, and coordinated highly respected experts in the field of Alzheimer’s research. This briefing not only served to inform Congressional members and staffers about Alzheimer’s research, but also provided a forum for Senator Clinton to call for increased NIH funding. 
Once the first session of the 110th Congress convenes on January 8th, 2007, I will have a larger set of “tools” at my disposal to advance policy, compared to the first few months of my fellowship.  While the Democrats were in the minority, Senator Clinton’s health staff spent significant time and energy analyzing bills proposed by the majority and then negotiating changes to the legislation in order to avoid negative impacts on health care, research, or health care funding for New York.  We also relied heavily on briefings, letters, and public statements to communicate Senator Clinton’s positions and ideas for health policy. Now that Democrats have assumed the majority, I will potentially work in a more receptive environment for Senator Clinton’s policy priorities and will have more leverage over advancement of proposed legislation. 
Despite the improved climate for Democrats on The Hill, I have an even greater duty as a staffer to build support for specific legislative proposals. The Senate legislative process was designed so that individual Senators all wield significant power, and it takes just one Senator to place a hold on legislation and prevent a vote. Moreover, the Democrats’ margin of power is small in the Senate. Democrat Senators have their individual policy goals for the 110th Congress, but their respective committees will choose only a selection of proposed bills as the top legislative priorities.
Therefore, a crucial component of my job will be to build strong coalitions for each bill in order to convince the committee chairs and the majority of Senators that Senator Clinton’s proposed legislation should become law. Forming a coalition requires communication and consultation with experts and stakeholders—such as constituents, relevant professional societies, and advocacy groups—in order to garner sufficient support for a bill. I must also maintain dialogues and strong working relationships with counterpart staffers in Senate and House of Representative offices. As veteran staffers are apt to say: “Policy, POLITICS, and procedure are the factors that determine what becomes law.”
Although politics and procedure are powerful forces in the legislative process, scientists can play an important role in advising lawmakers. Today, scientific research affects a myriad of policy issues. Yet there is a glaring discrepancy between the public’s growing reliance on scientific and technological advances and their lack of understanding of the underlying scientific and technological principles. Now more than ever, our lawmakers are in need of expert technical advice. Congressional Fellowships help meet this need by allowing scientists to apply their analytical and problem-solving skills to policy making. 
Another avenue for scientists to influence the policy process is a personal visit to members of Congress in order to advocate for greater attention to an issue of concern or increased funding for research. As a trained scientist who now interacts with researchers from a staffer’s perspective, I have learned some important components of a productive dialogue.
Since staffers meet with hundreds of stakeholders a year for typically less than 30 minutes, a scientist must be prepared to deliver a clear and succinct explanation of the issue and a cogent argument for its importance. Ideally, scientists should also be able to explain how their issue of interest will affect the lawmaker’s home state or district. Further, scientists should be aware of the status, lead sponsorship, and content of relevant legislation, and should be prepared to offer suggestions that improve the language of pending legislation.  
As the start of the 110th Congress rapidly approaches, I am eager to continue learning the intricate and arcane rules and precedents that comprise the Senate’s legislative procedure. More importantly, I am hopeful that my efforts will yield strong contributions to sound health policy. I am very grateful to SPIE and the Optical Society of America for providing me with this invaluable and amazing experience. 

Eleanore B. Edson
Edson earned a BS from Stanford University and a PhD from Harvard University. Her research focused on how small molecules shape the strength and length of visual signals traveling from the eye to the brain. She has also served as the National Academies' Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellow.