From scientist to policymaker: my journey from chemistry labs to the

White House

By: Seth Cohen

Read Seth's piece in Medium HERE 

October 30, 2020

I never thought I’d get to meet a U.S. President in person. I never thought I’d see the inside of the Oval Office. I certainly never thought I’d directly help shape the trajectory of science in the United States. But thanks to the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship program, I did all these things and more. As a member of the scientific staff that supports the White House, I met a President, and Vice-President, and members of their Cabinet. I didn’t just see the Oval Office — I had the privilege to give my friends, family, and colleagues tours of the West Wing, the Press Briefing Room, and the Rose Garden. These were among the most amazing personal and professional experiences of my life.


Though I’m a professional scientist (I’ve been a professor of chemistry at UC San Diego for nearly two decades), I’ve always had an interest in civics, public policy, government, and politics. I was active in the Junior Statesmen of America (JSA) in high school, double-majored in chemistry and political science in college, and served on the Planning Commission for San Marcos, California, in adulthood.


But it wasn’t until later in life that I learned to meaningfully bridge my science and policy selves. The turning point came when I applied for and received an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) science policy fellowship. AAAS catapulted me into science policy at the highest level. As a fellow in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), I supported the Presidential transition (from Bush to Obama), facilitated high-level interactions among federal agencies with a stake in science, and contributed to key policy documents governing our nation’s scientific agenda.


My tenure at OSTP was filled with amazing experiences. It was fascinating to see how a relatively small office (fewer than a hundred technical experts serve at OSTP) work to oversee and coordinate the scientific efforts of the entire federal government. The lean but elite team at OSTP is a unique example of government functioning at an influential yet personal scale. I was immensely impressed with how non-partisan the OSTP environment was, especially during the transition period. Everyone I met was unquestionably focused on a smooth transfer of leadership that ensured the success of the incoming administration and its scientific brain trust.

OSTP also provided abundant opportunities for me to utilize my scientific training to support decision makers within the federal government. My perspectives as a chemist and academic scientist were valued at OSTP, where I provided a first-hand perspective on the potential impact of federal policies on graduate education, postdoctoral training, academic research, and the like. My colleagues at OSTP and other federal agencies truly valued and frequently acted on my input. In return, they gave me deeper understanding of the many other perspectives (e.g., from the government, private-sector, and NGO sides of things) that feed into policy development.


A particularly meaningful project I worked on was coordinating the federal response to President Obama’s Scientific Integrity Memorandum. The memorandum sought to standardize policies across federal agencies with respect to government scientists and their interactions with other parts of the government, their professional communities, and the public. This involved engaging with scientists from more than 20 federal agencies to learn about their science, research culture, and how they tackle issues of scientific integrity. The project drew on my organizational and leadership skills as much as my technical expertise. Most importantly, the project enabled me to actively implement the training on scientific ethics that I had received throughout my education and career. Helping to advance and institutionalize integrity as part of our nation’s scientific enterprise was one of the best parts of my AAAS fellowship, and one of the efforts that I am proudest to have played a part in.


Upon completing my fellowship and returning to my home institution, I came back to an intact, productive, and vibrant research group. With the power of Skype and other teleconferencing and videoconferencing systems (systems that have only improved since!), it wasn’t difficult for me to attend team check-in’s, have face-to-face meetings with individual students and researchers, and maintain a positive and productive relationship with my group. My AAAS fellowship experience was so positive that now — ten years later — I am beginning a second stint serving in the federal government as a Program Manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). My network of AAAS fellows, OSTP colleagues, and other friends and professional connections I made during my fellowship has been vital for making my return to DC easy and helping me adjust quickly to my new position.


I write this article as a call to action to scientists across the country: scientists in academia, industry, the pharmaceutical sector, investment ventures and beyond. My AAAS fellowship was among the most personally and professionally rewarding experiences of my career, and one where both myself and the federal enterprise benefitted. I loved my time in DC and after I came home, I was met with respect and admiration from colleagues at my university and more broadly in my community for my federal service. I am confident that returning to government a second time will only further enhance my career.


One avenue for scientists to get a taste of policymaking is through the Day One Project. The Day One Project was launched in January 2020 through the Federation of American Scientists with the goal of democratizing the policymaking process. The Project has worked to engage scientists and technologists with deep backgrounds in their respective fields to develop concrete ideas in science and technology that the next administration can implement. The Project is currently working to solicit actionable policy ideas through its accelerator and separately the Project is working to develop a list of the top federal government positions where experience in science and technology is most important.


I encourage other scientists to consider their own tours of public service as well, whether at the local, regional, or national level. Having a better understand of the federal research enterprise — as well as how the federal funds that we so desperately apply for are distributed, allocated, and prioritized — is invaluable for any career scientist. Any honest academic would acknowledge that they have complained about the federal funding systems. I challenge those who have to spend time working within those systems, to understand and improve them. I also encourage other scientists to get involved sooner rather than later. Serving as an AAAS fellow relatively early in my independent career has given me plenty of time to benefit from and leverage my government experience going forward.

Finally, I want to emphasize that a stint in government is more than a career boost — it is a privilege and a deeply enriching and enlightening personal experience. Public service broadens your perspective on the issues that face our society and is an exciting opportunity to give back to the government and taxpayers that support us and the privileged careers we enjoy as scientists in the United States.

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