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Fortunately, Congressional Science Fellows do not have to come to Congress unprepared. Every September, the AAAS runs an excellent two-week orientation for all incoming fel- lows, followed by a rich schedule of training and networking events throughout the year. After our orientation, the pro- gram organizers helped each fellow connect with the staffs of senators, representatives, and legislative committees to choose a host office. I interviewed with about a dozen of- fices seeking a scientist to work on energy issues and found a good match with the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. Among the factors that drew me to Senator Fein- stein’s office were her leadership on the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, whose fund- ing targets include the Department of Energy, and the in- teresting mix of power production technologies in the state she represents.
Senator Feinstein has hosted at least 11 Congressional Sci- ence Fellows over her 25 years in the Senate, including a pro- fessor of psychology who joined me there for 2015-2016. We were both welcomed and quickly integrated into the Sena- tor’s team, attending the Senator’s regular conclaves with her staff, drafting memos and other materials, and meeting with a diverse stream of constituents who traveled from Califor- nia to request Senator Feinstein’s support for their priorities. It was a dramatic, fast-paced, yet highly disciplined environ- ment for absorbing policy-making lessons, and I had a lot to learn. On my first day, I turned on the closed-circuit TV at my desk to watch the Senate chamber, and I could not even tell what the senators were voting to do. The record reveals that it was a “motion to invoke cloture on the motion to con- cur in the House amendment to the Senate amendment to H.R.719, with further amendment,” words that, it is gratify- ing to recognize, now mean something to me.3
Although I have yet to fully master parliamentary proce- dure, I did gain a perspective on many ongoing issues in- volving physical science, from coal-leasing policies to seis- mic resiliency planning. Other compelling projects came up in areas I never expected to confront as a physicist, a good indicator of how congressional aides must constantly pivot between a wide range of matters. One staffer in my host of- fice, himself a former Congressional Science Fellow, deftly handled a portfolio spanning natural disasters, agriculture,
3 In this vote, senators were electing to move forward (by limiting the time allowed for debate) on a short-term spending bill the House and Senate had negotiated to keep the government funded from the end of Fiscal Year 2015 until Congress reached an agreement about funding levels for Fiscal Year 2016.
and veterans affairs. Naturally, the unpredictable turns of the attention of Congress after major events and political vaga- ries had a big influence on what all of us did on a daily basis.
Some of my favorite projects involved sorting through pub- licly available federal data sets. Not long before I started in her office, Senator Feinstein had introduced legislation aimed at reducing the safety risks from consumer drones. One concern in this area is the possibility of a drone colliding with a manned aircraft. Watching the simulated ingestion of a drone by a jet engine4 quickly convinces most people that they would not want to be passengers on that jet. The prob- ability of such an interaction is harder to assess. To provide one data-driven viewpoint, a team of the Senator’s staffers worked together to analyze a couple of thousand reports of drone sightings and close calls, a task not entirely unlike an- alyzing particle interactions in a detector. Our simple study indicated that many planes were encountering drones under risky circumstances. These findings, reported in a handful of national media outlets, were among the arguments that helped garner support for new drone safety standards.
Another aviation topic I encountered had acoustics at its heart. As it transitions to a satellite-based system of air traf- fic control, the Federal Aviation Administration is rolling out new flight patterns around airports nationwide. Thou- sands of people bothered by the new distribution of aircraft noise have written to their representatives in Congress, and a number of congressional offices have put forward bills and amendments to address these concerns. For those of us making recommendations about these proposals, Acoustics Today and The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America provided valuable background (one review is Fidell, 2015). Talking with stakeholders underscored how the issue of community noise impacts, like many others, extends well beyond the physical measurements and into the basic ques- tions of fairness and the costs of regulations. A future Con- gressional Science Fellow would certainly find more oppor- tunities to contribute to these discussions.
For someone coming from particle physics, one of last year’s best moments was the announcement of the first direct de- tection of gravitational waves. Emissaries from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)
4 A simulation from the Virginia Tech Crashworthiness for Aerospace Struc- tures and Hybrids (CRASH) Lab, led by Javid Bayandor, is available at
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