Scientists on the Hill

By Vicki Zwart

For more than 40 years, the American Geophysical Union’s Congressional Science Fellows have helped influence and shape policy on Capitol Hill, working with leading members of Congress on legislation that significantly impacts the health and well-being of the country and its citizens. They are all highly-qualified and experienced scientists sharing their expertise about Earth and space sciences.

AGU’s Congressional Science Fellowship program began in the fall of 1977. It’s designed to put the Fellow in the middle of public policy-making in Congress. They can work as a legislative assistant in congressional offices of either an individual member of Congress or on a committee. The program lasts one year.

When AGU’s first Fellow, Dr. Yacov Y. Haimes, arrived in Washington, D.C., he spent two intensive weeks getting a crash course in the legislative process and politics. He then underwent a lengthy interview process (dozens of interviews with congressional staffers) to find his home base for the rest of his fellowship. The orientation and interview processes have remained basically the same. Haimes split his fellowship into two parts, spending his first three months with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the next nine with the House Committee on Science and Technology.

All Fellows contribute scientific knowledge and advice on important issues facing Congress while preparing memos, crafting legislation, meeting with lobbyists, and writing speeches. Scientists and engineers are in demand on the Hill so requests usually surpass the number of Fellows available.


AGU’s sponsorship of the Fellows grew out of its keen interest in the early 1970s of assisting Congress in providing knowledge and advice on legislation involving geophysics.

At the start, AGU was one of 10 societies (now nearly 30) that supported Fellows under the supervision of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional Science and Engineering Fellows Program.

The Fellows who followed in Haimes’ footsteps have held a variety of positions on the Hill, from legislative aide for energy (9th Fellow Dana Isherwood) for former Senator Al Gore (D-TN)  to staff scientist for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (23rd Fellow Bryan J. Hannegan).

Daily duties for Fellows have included: Helping the Polish government set up a geological survey (13th Fellow Dr. Barbara J. Frank), crafting the High-Level Nuclear Waste Disposal Bill which became law (5th Fellow Dr. George H. Shaw), and lobbying for the International Space Station (21st Fellow Dr. Julie J. Moses).

Christopher Bernabo chaired the Union’s CSF selection committee for 5 years after leaving his Fellowship post and shared with Eos readers in February of 1986 that “this experience has a lasting influence on the Fellows by providing them with a unique and valuable appreciation of the relationship between science and policy.”

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