IEEE-USA Government Fellows Bring Technical Insight to Public Policy

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Ask anyone who has served an IEEE-USA Government Fellowship about their experience and they’re likely to rave about it.

“It was one of the most, or maybe the most, rewarding year in my life,” former IEEE-USA Congressional Fellow Steve Bonk said.

Dr. Sherry Gillespie, another former fellow, agrees: “It was one of the best years of my life.”

IEEE-USA Government Fellows put their scientific and technical knowledge to use in government and help to shape public policy. One-year positions are available in Congress, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“It’s very much a two-way benefit,” Gillespie said. “It certainly benefits the scientist or engineer in terms of immersing themselves in public policy; it’s really a way of giving back. After a career or an education in science and technology, to be able to apply it for the public good, that’s a tremendously satisfying experience.”

For more information on the government fellowship program, including a video feature, see http://www.ieeeusa.org/policy/govfel/default.asp.

IEEE-USA is accepting applications for a 2015-16 fellowship now through 16 January 2015. Successful candidates will serve from 1 September to 31 August. A stipend of $55,000 to $65,000 is provided, as well as $5,000 for travel and relocation expenses.

“Every scientist and engineer should consider doing a year of service in public policy,” Gillespie said.

To apply, you must be a U.S. IEEE member with a master’s degree and five years relevant professional experience or have a Ph.D. The degree requirement can be waived if you have compensating experience, and you must be a U.S. citizen prior to selection. Applicants are evaluated on:

  • Technical competence
  • Ability to serve in a public environment
  • Basic comprehension & understanding of the public policy process
  • Evidence of service to IEEE & the engineering profession

Working on Capitol Hill

Gillespie served her fellowship in 2008 in the office of former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who at the time was a member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services and chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

One of her assignments was to draft legislation that became part of the “Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009,” which was signed into law on 14 October 2008. Gillespie worked on Section 254 on “Trusted Defense Systems.”

“That was extraordinarily gratifying,” she said. “My personal background in semiconductor technology was very applicable to the legislation on acquisition of semiconductors for the military.”

Gillespie reflected more on her time in Congress in a piece she co-wrote in Dec. 2011 with Dr. Tom Tierney, IEEE-USA vice president for government relations, “What Does it Take to be an IEEE-USA Government Fellow?” Tierney served a 2009 IEEE-USA Engineering & Diplomacy Fellowship in the State Department.

Bonk worked in the office of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) in 2006. A former senior speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, Rohrabacher was, and still is, a member of what is now the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Bonk said one of the big lessons he learned during his year in Congress was that “things don’t happen overnight.” He cited the America COMPETES Act, which passed in 2007, the year after his fellowship. The bill was designed to promote U.S. competiveness by investing in innovation and education.

“The way the government works, some of the important legislation doesn’t happen in one year or one congressional session,” he said. “We’re looking at America COMPETES again this year for another reauthorization.”

Bonk’s work on America COMPETES awakened in him a “passionate interest” in promoting STEM education to our nation’s youth. Among the engineering public awareness activities he has participated in are the USA Science & Engineering Festival, the IEEE Baltimore Section Robot Challenge, the Future City Competition and Discover Engineering Family Day.

“I definitely saw the importance of STEM, and [my fellowship] got me off in that direction after being up on the Hill,” Bonk said. “I saw how important STEM education is to the future of our country.”

Dr. Gordon Day served in Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s (D-W.Va.) office in 2005. He credits his fellowship for giving him the public policy experience to run for IEEE-USA president, an office he held in 2009. Three years later, he was IEEE president.

Rockefeller, who is retiring after serving in the Senate since 1984, has had a government fellow in his office for 19 straight years to advise him on technology issues that come before Congress. He appreciates the key role they play.

“We work on science and innovation and all kinds of things, but you have to have somebody who knows what they’re talking about,” said Rockefeller, who introduced the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2014 on 1 August. “In this office, in health care, science, technology and innovation, we’ve had those people, and they make all the difference in the world.”

Much of the legislation that comes before Congress is rooted in science and mathematics.

“For the office [you work in], you are the scientist or engineer on staff, and it becomes a very critical role because so much legislation really begs for a scientific underpinning,” Gillespie said. “You don’t want legislation to just be people’s gut feeling. There has to be some scientific basis.”

Fellowship Benefits

Gillespie said she never knew for sure what her priorities would be each day or who she would meet. She recalled the time someone came to the office and wanted to see Sen. Lieberman, but didn’t have an appointment. Because it sounded science-related, Gillespie was asked to meet with the gentleman.

“So I dropped everything and who was it but Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon,” she said. “And I thought, “Oh my god, is this my lucky day?’ So I spent the next hour talking to Gene Cernan. Who would have known when I got up that morning that that would be what I was doing that day.

“It’s incredible the number of things that go through a congressional office that are unanticipated.”

Although IEEE-USA government fellows aren’t paid by the federal government, they are treated “just like any other staffer,” Gillespie said. “You have the same badge as a staffer and have every right and every access that any staffer has to any part of the Capitol. I even got to go on to the floor of the Senate to humbly deliver papers to the senator.

“That’s a very extraordinary experience, rather than just looking down from the galleries.”

Bonk traveled to Rohrabacher’s district in Orange County, Calif., and enjoyed a number of cool experiences there and nearby. He went aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor, visited SpaceX and the Jet Propulsion Lab, saw a satellite launch and met a few astronauts. He even got a tour of the renowned Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography “from the back side, which you normally don’t see.”

Bonk said these type of things were fun and interesting, but he found many of the day-to-day activities equally rewarding or more so.

“Some of the things that are memorable are not the big [meetings] with industry, NASA and the federal agencies,” he said, “but out of an individual office working with a constituent, setting some of the small businesses up and helping them navigate the government and getting into places like DARPA and having research done, getting into some of the NASA facilities to do tests, and navigating government programs and tests.”

Bonk recalled one such meeting in which he paired a constituent with a federal agency to improve diesel fuel.

“The fuel improvement was just about nil,” he said, “but it did result in a huge reduction in nitrous oxide emissions.”

As a result of her fellowship, Gillespie was asked to be a paid consultant for a think tank on sci-tech policy.

“In my case, [the fellowship] was certainly pivotal in my career growth,” she said, “and I think that every case I’m familiar with other fellows, there have been parallel circumstances where it jump-started their career in different directions than they might have anticipated.”

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Chris McManes is IEEE-USA’s public relations manager.

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