Anyone who attends science conferences will eventually hear a scientist say “policy implications should be left to policy specialists and scientists should confine themselves to scientific research.” It’s a minority opinion but not an uncommon one.
But it’s not something you’d ever hear from Chris Spitzer, a postdoctoral researcher in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.
Spitzer, who spent last summer working as a newspaper reporter, has just been appointed a congressional science fellow for 2010-11. In the fall he will head out to Washington to listen and learn, but also to do what he can to make sure policy is informed by science.
The Congressional Science and Engineering Fellows program is a cooperative effort of about 30 scientific and engineering societies administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Spitzer’s fellowship is sponsored jointed by the AVS: Science & Technology of Materials, Interfaces and Processing and the American Istitute of Physics
Congressional Fellows spend one year serving on the staffs of members of Congress or congressional committees in legislative areas that would benefit from scientific and technical analysis and perspective.
At Washington University, Spitzer is working on projects that would flummox even the science literate: hidden sectors and dark matter.
Hidden sectors, for example, are large new families of fundamental particles that particle physicists think must exist even though they’ve never been “seen.” Spitzer is trying to understand how hidden sectors might announce their presence at the Large Hadron Collider, the new particle accelerator that just began operation in Europe.
It’s hard to imagine preoccupations more distant from those of Washington insiders.
But Spitzer has always had extremely broad interests. “As an undergraduate I studied computer science and engineering and then just sort of added on physics at the end,” he says. “And I did a minor in English at the same time. “
“Having a lot of interests teaches you how to think in different ways,” he says, something that’s useful when you’re trying to achieve political consensus.
Spitzer’s interest in policy, however, dates from his years in graduate school. “At the time the federal government was starting to abandon science in certain areas in very clear ways, “ he says. Among those areas was climate change, a topic of deep concern to Spitzer.
So while he pursued his PhD at the University of Washington, he completed course work in energy technology and science policy at the university’s Evans School of Public Affairs.
And he paid attention when a fellow graduate student became a congressional fellow and went to work for Harry Reed. “He had a really wonderful time there,” Spitzer says. “He worked on a lot of interesting issues, especially nuclear power and nuclear waste, and he’s since established a career in energy policy.”
About a third of the congressional science fellows find jobs in Washington in areas related to their fellowship responsibilities.
Spitzer has also been through boot camp for communicating complicated scientific ideas to a broad audience. Last summer, as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow he worked as a reporter for The Oregonian, a daily newspaper based in Portland.
There he wrote articles about everything from quantum dots to the cuteness of babies. We’re hardwired to respond to big eyes and chubby cheeks, he reported, a preference exploited by popular cultural icons such as Hello Kitty and the Volkswagen Beetle.
At The Oregonian he also got to witness firsthand the changes now overtaking print media. There was a major staff reduction at the newspaper that summer.
“It’s a problem that the news hole is shrinking when , more than ever, we need a well-informed electorate,” he says.
Spitzer is clearly adaptable and Washington is the seat of power, but who walks away from a five-year investment in professional training? If you really push him hard about this, you get an old-fashioned reply: duty.
“Most of our careers have been supported by the public at some point. The state of Washington and the Department of Energy paid my way through graduate school, and I think it’s not just a good thing, it’s almost a duty, to give back to that system, to report the findings of scientific research and to make sure their implications are understood.”
He won’t find out who he’s working for until September, but he’s hoping for a spot with a Senator or committee working on new legislation. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources perhaps.
No matter what his position, he is likely to be successful and also to learn, as Einstein once said, that “politics is more difficult than physics.”