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AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship at the US Environmental Protection Agency

From 2016 to 2018 I was at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, DC, as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellow. I was hosted by EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center, which is part of EPA’s Office of Research & Development and is now reorganized as the Center for Environmental Solutions and Emergency Response.

Social Science and Program Improvement in a Large Agency

The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship Program places scientists in federal offices to learn about how science and policy shape each other. We brought our scientific skills and interests to bear on challenges of federal policies and programs.

As a social scientist with long experience in project management and evaluation, I was interested in how public agency programs could best achieve the results they aim to.

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Improving Partner Engagement in Program Planning and Implementation

Agencies implement many of their programs in collaboration with other offices and organizations. A program’s success may depend on how well an agency coordinates with these partners.

Yet agencies and their partners may not always clearly communicate expectations. Assumptions about exactly who is going to do what may be “black-boxed.” Gaps and bottlenecks in implementation may result.

Program partner engagement flow diagram

Flow diagram appears in two-pager

I developed a diagramming exercise to map this constellation of partners, unpack those black boxes, and identify gaps and bottlenecks in program implementation. It is summarized briefly in this two-pager on the methods program described in the next section.

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Piloting the Program Partner Diagramming Exercise

I first piloted this exercise on an EPA program that develops new, more rapid radiochemical analytical laboratory methods. The program aims to improve preparedness for a radiological contamination emergency.

Would the methods be used as planned during an emergency? Would other offices involved in a response incorporate the methods into their own decision making? I solicited feedback, criticism, and suggestions through interviews with 21 partners and leads, including federal and state laboratories and incident responders.

Among other findings, interviews showed a need for better outreach. Labs and incident responders must be well aware of the new methods in advance of an emergency if they are to make the best use of them during an emergency. To help fill this gap, I worked with colleagues to produce one-page EPA fact sheets for laboratory and environmental response personnel, described next.

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Simple Fact Sheets on Complex Technical Methods

Simple, clear information is critical to communicating and coordinating with program partners, articulating a program’s value, and cultivating buy-in.

Information on EPA’s rapid radiochemical laboratory methods has long been available in detailed, comprehensive technical documents. To complement those, I designed and co-authored single-page fact sheets with Kathy Hall, EPA Health Physicist.

My experience translating scientific and technical information for busy practitioners enabled me to take a bird’s-eye view of information needs and distill key points in an easy-to-read form. Kathy provided technical expertise, a solid understanding of our audience, and many patient hours helping me understand radiochemistry.

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