Building a 21st Century Congress: Improving STEM Policy Advice in the Emerging Technology Era

| November 2020

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Executive Summary

“Government needs technologists in policy development conversations to effectively serve people today and anticipate needs for tomorrow.”1


In September 2019, the Technology and Public Purpose (TAPP) Project released Building a 21st Century Congress: Improving Congress’s Science and Technology Expertise, a report that analyzed how Congress receives, absorbs, and uses scientific and technical information to craft legislation and conduct oversight of the executive branch. The report argued that,

“Congress has simply not given itself the resources needed to efficiently and effectively absorb new information—particularly on complex [science and technology] topics. Legislative support agencies and committees have been allowed to atrophy, reducing policy expertise on S&T issues and institutional knowledge about policymaking and how to be effective in Congress. Congressional offices are not given the resources necessary to recruit and retain the number of experienced staff needed.”2

To address Congress’s science and technology capacity gaps to better prepare it for the present and the future, Building a 21st Century Congress:Improving Congress’s Science and Technology Expertise offered four recommendations:

  1. Congress Should Address Its Institutional Gap by Creating a Legislative Support Body Focused on S&T Issues.3
  2. Congress Should Hire Additional S&T Talent in Personal Offices and Committees.
  3. Congress Should Address Broad Structural Gaps by Increasing Its Funding.
  4. External Resource Providers Should Seek to Produce Information in Formats that Congress Values.



This report seeks to provide a detailed look at the second recommendation: to outline how Congress can work with academic institutions, non-profit organizations, and other key stakeholders to build and scale career pathways to bring top STEM talent to work on Capitol Hill. After describing the value propositions for both STEM professionals and Congress, the report looks at existing pathways, analyzes how to maximize the impact of STEM professionals doing policy advising work, and offers opportunities for improving and increasing pathways.


But There Are Already STEM Professionals Working on Capitol Hill, Right?


Many congressional personal offices and committees are already staffed by smart, public-spirited STEM professionals; several of their perspectives are included in this report.

But none of the interviewees for this report, or for our previous report,Building a 21st Century Congress:Improving Congress’s Science and Technology Expertise, argued that the status quo worked as well as it should; no one thought that Congress had enough STEM expertise to best reckon with emerging technology issues.

Everyone—from members of Congress to their staffers, from non-profit leaders to private sector professionals, and from generalists to STEM professionals—thought that Congress can do better.


This report is not an exhaustive analysis of all existing pathways for STEM professionals to advise on policy; there are already too many programs to look at, and more are currently in development. Rather, the report investigates several of the most promising pathways and highlights opportunities to scale them to reach new STEM professionals.

Finally, creating and improving pathways for STEM professionals to serve in policy advising roles is just one piece of a larger puzzle; transformative changes are necessary for Congress to function as a truly 21st century institution. While creating and improving pathways for STEM professionals to work on policy will not address every part of Congress’s science and technology capacity gap, it remains an important topic to address.


Value Proposition


Value to STEM Professionals

Like any role, working on policy issues on Capitol Hill has intrinsic value and extrinsic value; much of this value is common to professionals of all backgrounds, but some is unique to STEM professionals.

In addition to the intrinsic values of serving the public, influencing policy, and helping people that professionals of all backgrounds often gain from their roles on Capitol Hill, through interviews and a review of the literature, STEM professionals noted that “shaping the environment in which they will eventually work,” being a “trusted advisor,” and being in a position to make significant change were uniquely valuable to them.

Extrinsic values motivate STEM professionals to work on Capitol Hill as well; several described altering their career trajectory, developing complementary skills, and broadening professional networks as important reasons to serve in policy advising roles. However, there is a perception among many STEM professionals that working on policy issues could be viewed as a waste of a degree that would not help make them attractive candidates in private sector roles.


Value to Congress

STEM professionals have much to offer Capitol Hill. The most consistent themes surfaced in interviews and the literature were that STEM professionals bring unique technical skills, like data analysis and an ability to quickly understand technical research; subject matter expertise in relevant areas, such as epidemiology and public health; and metacognitive diversity, or a different way of looking at problems and solutions than their peers with backgrounds in liberal arts or law.


Existing Pathways for STEM Professionals

There are several existing pathways for STEM professionals to serve in policy advising roles; due to their prominence and noted value, this report will focus on university-driven pathways and not-for-profit-driven pathways. Additionally, the federal government has several existing pathways for technical talent to work on technical issues; because these programs offer important insights into how to successfully construct a government-driven pathway, they are included as examples to draw from.


University Pathways

Universities are some of the most important nodes in the network that matches STEM talent to policy advising roles. Universities are natural places to create pathways to congressional policymaking roles for STEM students and alumni, as they are found in most congressional districts, already focus on helping students find a career path, and offer vital interdisciplinary learning opportunities.

Several prominent academic institutions, like the University of Maryland-College Park, University of Michigan, Harvard University, Carnegie-Mellon University, and Stanford University have dedicated programs for STEM students seeking to develop the skills they will need to be effective in the policy space. While existing programs typically do not focus on STEM-to-Congress pathways, all help to develop STEM professionals who are knowledgeable about and capable of serving in policy advising roles.

Additionally, the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN) is a New America Foundation-supported network of universities committed to developing the field of public interest technology at their institutions, creating a space for university leaders to share best practices and collaborate with one another.


Non-Profit-Driven Pathways

Several well-regarded organizations recruit and train technical talent to work on policy issues, whether in Congress or in state or local government. Often, these organizations have experience bridging the for-profit, not-for-profit, and public sectors, allowing them to identify talent and bring positive attributes from one sector to another. Additionally, when a non-profit organization is adequately funded, it can help to scale successes internally—making existing projects larger—and externally, by bringing them to new institutions. However, non-profit-driven pathways often face funding challenges, and the structure of the programs often makes post-fellowship matchmaking a challenge.

Three notable non-profit-driven pathways are the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science & Technology Policy Fellowship, which has recruited STEM professionals with a PhD to work on Capitol Hill and in executive branch agencies since 1973; TechCongress, which focuses on bringing technical talent to Congress for a one-year fellowship; and the Aspen Tech Policy Hub, a Bay Area organization that trains technologists in how the policy sphere works.


Government-Driven Pathways

Programs that sit within the government are valuable for their abilities to scale, bypass the arduous traditional hiring process, and to take root in the bureaucracy. Technology-oriented programs like the Presidential Innovation Fellows, the United States Digital Service, 18F, and the Defense Digital Service enable top technical talent to work on technical issues within the executive branch, while intergovernmental details allow individuals from the government and academia to temporarily work in a different agency or sector. Finally, the Presidential Management Fellowship is a program that offers two-year fellowships to individuals with advanced degrees; while not focused on technology talent, the program is well-regarded for its ability to bring top talent into the federal government at scale, and could be broadened to recruit and deploy technical talent in the legislative branch.


Maximizing Impact of STEM Professionals in Congress

Nearly all stakeholders interviewed believed that increasing the number of STEM professionals serving on Capitol Hill is desirable. Given limited resources and the existing structure and strictures of Congress, it is worth considering how to make the most of additional STEM professionals.


What is the Appropriate Level of Experience for STEM Professionals Working on Capitol Hill?

One of the foundational questions for maximizing the impact that STEM professionals can have in Congress is what level of experience they should be coming in with.

While there was not consensus on the question, most stakeholders argued that junior STEM talent would not be as valuable as more experienced STEM talent on Capitol Hill, as more experienced and credentialed professionals would be seen as more capable and credible. As a leader of a nonprofit noted, the idea is “interesting in theory, in practice…” it is difficult to operationalize within the context of Congress.4


Attributes to be Successful in STEM Policy Advising

According to current and former congressional staffers and leaders of non-profit organizations, STEM professionals need to have, or be trained in, several attributes to be successful on Capitol Hill. Among others, they must have:

  • Policy communication skills, in order to “talk to people who aren’t scientists”;
  • An understanding that science and evidence is one driver of many when crafting policy on Capitol Hill, so that they are prepared when a decision contrary to the science is made;
  • Soft skills, like being flexible, having respect for the knowledge of others, empathy, and a “political muscle”; and
  • Adaptability, as there is a steep learning curve on Capitol Hill and STEM professionals will need to be able to grow into the job quickly to thrive.

All the above attributes are important for policy advising staff in Congress, but some of them are more quickly trainable than others. Learning how the policymaking process works, for example, is easier to learn quickly than how to be flexible and adaptable at work.


Training to be Successful in STEM Policy Advising

Given the experience and attributes described above, it is critical that STEM professionals have training and mentorship opportunities available to them. Many of the existing pathways programs hold trainings, seminars, and networking events to introduce the policymaking process to STEM professionals, though some interviewees noted that the pace of Congress often makes attending events difficult.

Having the right attributes to be successful, coupled with valuable training, would somewhat inoculate STEM professionals against being viewed as politically naïve and incapable of navigating Congress by other congressional staffers.


Analyzing Opportunities to Improve STEM Pathways

There are several ways to create new STEM pathways or to supplement existing pathways. The opportunities below are not mutually exclusive; different stakeholders can, and should, simultaneously work on the problem from their different perspectives.



This report focuses on six opportunities that would help to increase STEM representation in Congress:

  1. Build on Existing Successes: Stakeholders could build on existing pathways by augmenting available resources and enabling the growth of already-successful programs. This could be done by supporting existing congressional pathways, such as AAAS and TechCongress fellowships; creating congressional pathways modeled on existing executive branch programs, like the USDS and PMF; or working with outside organizations, like Coding it Forward and College to Congress, which can help place STEM professionals in Congress.
  2. Create New Institutions to Bring Technical Talent to Congress: Rather than seeking to add STEM professionals to personal offices, Congress and external stakeholders could build a new institution, or set of institutions, to recruit and house STEM talent working on policy issues.
  3. Create and Expand University Pathways: Universities can be valuable staging grounds for more junior STEM talent in helping to seed interest in policymaking roles, developing skills for later use, creating personal and professional networks to draw from later, and connecting STEM undergraduates to congressional internships.
  4. Create New Short-Term ‘Tour of Duty’ Roles for Scientists and Technologists: As noted in the Existing STEM Pathways section, the executive branch has established several tour of duty programs for technical talent to work on technical issues. Legislative branch support agencies, congressional personal offices, and congressional committees could establish new ‘tour of duty’ pathways for scientists and technologists to work on specific policy issues for a set amount of time.
  5. Create Custom-Built Fellowship Program(s): Rather than building on existing fellowship programs, key stakeholders could develop a new model that combines classroom learning, job placement, on-the-job training, and mentoring.
  6. Create Vetted Talent Pools: While congressional offices must independently do more to ensure that staff diversity is a priority for them, a trusted entity—a university or other non-profit organization, for example—could help by offering a curated pool of STEM candidates to congressional personal offices.



What is lost when science and technology policy is not informed and crafted by a diverse group of internal STEM professionals? What questions are not being asked during private meetings in personal offices or during public hearings about emerging technologies because there are not enough STEM professionals in congressional policy roles? How might Congress treat a pandemic differently if it had a more diverse group of internal experts in epidemiology and public health?

Many congressional personal offices and committees are already staffed by smart, public-spirited scientists and technologists, and Congress can draw on outside experts to inform its legislation and its hearings. But none of the interviewees for this report or our previous report, argued that the status quo worked as well as it should; no one thought that Congress had enough STEM expertise to effectively reckon with emerging technology issues. Everyone—from members of Congress to their staffers, from non-profit leaders to private sector professionals, from generalists to STEM professionals—thought that Congress can do better.

Increasing the number of STEM professionals working in Congress will not solve polarization or fully counter the influence of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Adding more STEM professionals to personal offices will not convince members that climate change is a result of man-made greenhouse gas emissions if their political incentives dictate that they pretend otherwise. STEM professionals will not convince members to go against powerful members of their political party.

But while increasing the number of STEM professionals in personal offices and committees will not solve all of Congress’s problem, a Congress with more in-house STEM expertise is a better Congress. Getting there will require a culture shift within Congress, as well. Members of Congress will need to recognize that STEM professionals bring special qualities to their offices and their committees; other congressional staff will need to value the divergent perspectives that STEM professionals will offer. None of this will happen immediately, but creating pathways is a generational investment that is worth the effort.

Ultimately, building a 21st century Congress is a job for all of us. Universities, foundations, non-profits, and the private sector all have major roles to play in inspiring the next generation of scientists and technologists to see that policy advising is a thing that STEM professionals do—and do well.



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Executive Summary Notes
1 Jennifer Anastasoff, Jennifer Smith, and Max Stier, “Mobilizing Tech Talent: Hiring Technologists to Power Better Government” (Partnership for Public Service, September 2018),….
2 Mike Miesen and Laura Manley, “Building a 21st Century Congress: Improving Congress’s Science and Technology Expertise” (Technology and Public Purpose Project: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, September 2019), 9,….
3 Because the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team is a support body that sits within the broader Government Accountability Office, the report did not characterize the office as focused on S&T issues. It does, however, do important S&T work that aids Congress in its understanding of emerging technologies.
4 Interview with Nonprofit Leader, February 2020.
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Miesen, Mike and Laura Manley. “Building a 21st Century Congress: Improving STEM Policy Advice in the Emerging Technology Era.” , November 2020.

The Authors

Mike Miesen