SIAM News Blog

Reflections from a SIAM Science Policy Fellowship Recipient

By Natalie Sheils

In high school and college, I was heavily involved in student government. In fact, before pursuing math I initially majored in public affairs with a minor in nonprofit leadership. I planned to one day run for public office. A month into college free of math classes, I realized I missed mathematics. Without knowing what a future career could look like, I changed my major to applied mathematics. While I retained my love for politics and desire to affect change, these motivations slowly faded into the background as my time and energy shifted to mathematics research, graduate school, and the search for a postdoctoral fellowship.

When I received an email from SIAM advertising the Science Policy Fellowship last summer, I immediately knew I wanted to apply. After years of confining my political inclinations to marches and social media posts, I was excited at the opportunity to do something impactful. I sought advice from Tom Grandine, a member of SIAM’s Committee on Science Policy (CSP), whom I knew from a past summer internship at the Boeing Company. “U.S. policy decisions will likely have a big impact on you and your career,” Tom advised. “Having an insider’s perspective on how the federal funding agencies work and how to navigate those processes can only benefit you going forward.” After attending the CSP’s spring session and meeting with congressional representatives, I can already attest to Tom’s guidance.

I had no idea what to expect when we—the first class of SIAM Science Policy Fellowship recipients—attended the biannual CSP meeting. Rosalie Bélanger-Rioux (Harvard University), Robert Edman (Adventium Labs), Emily Evans (Brigham Young University), Sheri Martinelli (Pennsylvania State University), Jason Pries (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), Sucheta Soundarajan (Syracuse University), and I (University of Minnesota) gathered in Washington, D.C., in April for a half-day orientation before the regular members of the CSP arrived and the real work began. Staff members at Lewis-Burke Associates, the firm SIAM employs to represent us in Washington, led the orientation. We learned about SIAM’s history of advocacy and current congressional priorities. We also covered fundamentals, such as the outline of the federal budget, executive and congressional roles in budget creation, and investments in mathematics research. Finally, we talked about CSP goals and the general progression of the meeting, including a visit to legislators’ offices.

SIAM Science Policy Fellowship recipients attended the biannual meeting of the Committee on Science Policy in Washington, D.C., this spring. SIAM photo.

The next two days were some of the best in my career. I made no breakthroughs in my research, I fell behind on email, and I skipped teaching and advising duties. However, I learned that many senior mathematicians—whom I admire and respect—share my interest in policy and possess a similar desire to impact change on a national scale through advocacy. When I decided to pursue an academic career, I had presumed that with much of my time devoted to research, advocacy would be limited to student mentoring. I had no idea that opportunities like the CSP existed, and certainly doubted that such contributions would be valued in academia. My conversations with CSP members over the course of the meeting drastically changed my perception and gave me hope that I could continue working as a research academic while advocating policy for many years to come.

During the first day of the meeting, we heard presentations by representatives from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy, and the Office of Naval Research. On the second day, we split into smaller groups and visited our legislators’ offices. Our group met with staffers for two House representatives and four senators. Many of them were American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional Science and Engineering Fellows, well-versed in technical fields and similarly committed to securing funding for basic research. Others were unfamiliar with SIAM, which gave us the chance to share exciting research and note the critical federal support that enabled these developments.

I applied for the Science Policy Fellowship to increase my knowledge of the policy and decision-making processes in Washington, D.C., where I hoped that networking opportunities would further my academic career. Additionally, I wanted to use my voice to represent applied mathematics and SIAM to lawmakers and staff while championing policy positions that would further diversity and increase federal investment in mathematical research, outreach, and education. As noted in the recent American Mathematical Society Report on 2015-2016 Academic Recruitment, Hiring, and Attrition, just 32 percent of all hires in the mathematical sciences during this time were female, and only 31 percent of mathematical sciences Ph.D.s were granted to women. Furthermore, a mere 22 percent of tenured doctoral full-time faculty are female. We need policies and programs that emphasize mentorship and allow flexibility for maternity leave and child care to help women advance to tenured professorship. For example, the NSF currently does not allow for travel costs or associated dependent care expenses for individuals traveling on NSF award funds. This places a considerable financial burden on nursing mothers, among others.

As a SIAM Science Policy Fellowship recipient, I am learning how federal funding agencies—upon which I rely to further my academic career—operate. I am also observing firsthand the effect of federal politics on these agencies’ budgets. This information will be vital to me as I continue to work in applied mathematics and campaign for diversity in the field. Although I am only a few months into my term, I am already reaping the benefits of this unique opportunity. I am reenergized in my work knowing that I am connected to a community of dedicated mathematicians and policy advocates, with whom I cannot wait to reunite in D.C. this fall at our next committee meeting.

Natalie Sheils is a visiting assistant professor in the School of Mathematics at the University of Minnesota. She earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Applied Mathematics at the University of Washington in 2015.

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