APS News

Fellows Hold Steady on Hill During Tumultuous Year

Last year, two physicists, Brendan Plapp and Sherri Stephan, brought their scientific expertise to Washington as APS Congressional Fellows, tackling such issues as ballistic missile defense, nuclear nonproliferation, and bioterrorism. They also were on hand to witness one of the closest presidential elections in American history; an historic shift in the balance of Congressional power with the defection of a key senator from the Republican party; and an unprecedented terrorist attack on American soil on September 11, whose aftereffects are still reverberating through Capitol Hill.

The rationale for the APS Congressional fellowship program is that public policy increasingly is determined by technical considerations. Science is a major component of many issues with which Congress must grapple: global warming, energy policy, defense technologies, AIDS, pollution, communications technologies, and many, many more. The program provides a public service by making available individuals with scientific knowledge and skills to Members of Congress, few of whom have a technical background. In turn, the program enables scientists to broaden their experience through direct involvement with the summer intern legislative and political processes. Fellows gain a perspective which, ideally, will enhance not only their own careers but also the physics community's ability to more effectively communicate with its representatives in Congress.

Brendan Plapp spent his fellowship year as a legislative assistant in the office of Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), working on such issues as nuclear nonproliferation of weapons and environmental concerns. "Even as an undergraduate in Iowa, I was interested in not just doing science, but also in the fact that the physics community has always been very active and involved in international issues, particularly related to nuclear weapons," says Plapp, who studied at the University of Illinois and Cornell with such luminaries as Hans Bethe and Kurt Gottfried.

One highlight for Plapp was working on an amendment to the proposed energy bill, which would have opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve for oil exploration. Markey's office introduced an alternate bill earlier this year to designate the region a wilderness refuge area which was subsequently defeated in Congress. In the area of national missile defense, Plapp helped Markey's office prepare a bill requiring adequate testing of potential countermeasures before fully deploying such a system. Those efforts are now on the back burner. Since September 11th, the focus of Plapp's work has shifted to safety and security of nuclear power plants, primarily on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's oversight of the industry.

Plapp described his year on the Hill as "absolutely unforgettable" - so much so that APS extended his fellowship to the end of 2001. He has decided to stay on in Washington, and has been exploring the available options in the House and Senate, as well as among scientific societies, many of which employ scientists in government relations and public communication capacities. "I'm exceedingly grateful to the APS for the opportunity," he says. "I'd always been interested in political issues, and I probably wouldn't have had the guts to do this on my own. This program provides an important opportunity for physicists like myself to get out of the laboratory and into the political process."

Sherri Stephan worked with the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, specifically on the minority staff of the Senate Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation and Federal Services. She was hired initially because her astronomy background meshed well with the committee's interests in ballistic missile defense and managing the military's space defense assets, as well as the potential for using satellite data for remote sensing. But because of the subcommittee's broad jurisdiction, she found herself involved with nuclear proliferation and chemical and biological weapons, as well as compiling data on the shortage of scientists and engineers in the federal government and assessing its impact on national security.

Like Plapp, Stephan found the focus of her work shifting in the post-September 11 environment, although terrorism and homeland security has always been a significant part of the committee's responsibilities. "After the attacks, those issues came to the forefront and became the priority for everyone," she says. "Our staff was a little bit ahead of the learning curve for a lot of those issues because we'd already been working on them." For example, the anthrax scare that hit Capitol Hill in October proved less disruptive among committee staff members than in some of the Congressional offices, and Stephan was on hand with solid scientific information to help assuage fears. "We've always said that bioterrorism would be very effective for killing a small number of people and terrorizing a lot more, but not very good for killing large numbers of people," she says. "But it is scary, and any death is tragic."

Despite such uncertainties, Stephan has also chosen to remain in Washington, DC. The subcommittee offered her a permanent position last spring, enabling her to follow through on the work she accomplished during her fellowship year. And it keeps her in the same geographical region as her husband, a physicist with the Naval Research Laboratory. "It's been a strange year, very atypical for a fellow, and it keeps getting stranger," she says. "But it's still a great place to work."

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette