National Service through Math

Original design for the "Be Patriotic" poster by Paul Stahr, 1917-18. Public Domain, from Wikipedia

Original design for the “Be Patriotic” poster by Paul Stahr, 1917-18. Public Domain, from Wikipedia

Math-ional Service? Two thoughts lead to one blog today. First: the recent political conventions (and non-stop political coverage for the last year before the conventions) have got me thinking about government and public service. The ideal of government is to serve the public. We all participate in government in a basic way when we vote, but surely there are other ways that citizens (like, say, mathematicians) can serve each other and the world through involvement in government. Second thought: once in a while, I want to do something else. I mean, do a job other than math professor. Occasionally, I want to do ANYTHING but be a math professor. Generally I am just looking for a temporary change, so I can use the skills that make me a good professor in a different way, or towards different goals… like maybe serving the public through working with the US government! Luckily, there are actually opportunities to do this as a professor. This blog is devoted to some government service opportunities for academic PhD mathematicians.

You may have heard of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. These are year-long fellowships open to professional researchers and educators with PhDs from any STEM field (master’s degrees in Engineering are also ok). The program accepts applicants to work in seven different areas to help with government policy related to science in technology. Fellows are based in Washington DC and receive a $75,000-$100,000 stipend plus benefits—this is a viable job for a full year. There are both congressional and executive branch fellowships available. The AMS sponsors one congressional fellowship each year specifically for a mathematician.

People do this program at many different stages of math life—early career, sabbatical, or transitioning out of academic mathematics. This work is right in line with my interests, so I applied for the Science and Technology Policy Fellowship two years ago. The application process is outlined on the website above. If you are chosen as a semi-finalist (I was), you will do a video-conference interview. Before my interview I was asked to write a briefing memo, explaining an area in which my expertise would be helpful to a policy maker. The people on the interview panel were very engaging. We talked about the memo I’d written and my interests in math and public policy. I have to say that the interview was a positive experience in itself. Though I was eventually became a finalist, I received an offer from Villanova at the same time, so I didn’t actually get to participate in the program. However, I think this fellowship is fantastic and I hope I get the chance to do this at some point in my career.

Another opportunity that gets less press is the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) Centers for Communication and Computing summer program for faculty, known as SCAMP. The Center for Communications Research has two offices, one in Princeton, NJ, the other in La Jolla, CA. Each summer these centers run 10-week summer workshops in which visiting and permanent researchers work on problems of interest to the government, including “cryptography, cryptanalysis, algorithms, high-performance computing, information processing, signal processing, and network security, as well as related areas of pure and applied mathematics,” according the CCR website.  I talked to several people who have gone to SCAMPs, and they reported really enjoying the problems and collaborative atmosphere. One thing to consider is that attending these workshops requires obtaining a security clearance, which is not a quick (or necessarily easy) process. It probably makes sense to start working on this early in the fall if you are interested in attending the following summer. If you are interested in joining a SCAMP, email CCR La Jolla or CCR Princeton for more information.

Finally, an opportunity that gets incredibly little press: the Defense Science Study Group (DSSG). I recently heard about it from an alumnus who had a great experience in the program. An internet search made the DSSG seem very mysterious—I found a few references from alumni (including this and this), but very little official information. (Apparently there is a real website, which was down but will hopefully be up again soon.) Here’s the general idea: the DSSG is a group of science and engineering professors that meet/go on adventures for approximately 20 days per year for two years. A new class is chosen every two years from a field of faculty nominated by their home universities. The participants learn about national security issues, from active US government security personnel. As their brochure explains, “Group members interact with top-level officials from the Department of Defense (DoD), and other Government organizations, various Intelligence agencies, The White House, and Congress. Visits to military bases throughout the United States provide members with a unique perspective of operating forces and allow DSSG members to meet with senior commanders responsible for our nation’s defense. Tours of defense laboratories and industrial facilities provide further insight into the technical dimensions of national security.”

The goal of this program is to forge connections between scientists and engineers and the national security community, and to encourage academic scientists and engineers to contribute their knowledge to addressing national security issues. It is administered by IDA and sponsored by the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA). For a math professor with strong national security interests, who is interested in doing things like flying in military planes and visiting aircraft carriers, this program would be a perfect fit. However, individuals can’t directly apply for this program. To get into the program, you need to be nominated by someone, usually an official at your university (like a provost). While some institutions have internal application processes, many do not. Some provosts may not know about this opportunity or may not have considered nominating a mathematician for it. With that in mind, the alum I talked to suggested that if you are interested you should definitely contact your provost about a nomination. Recruitment for the next two-year class begins this September/October.

Of course, programs like these are not the only math-related ways to serve/effect change in government. You could always just go to Congress, Mr. Smith style. The Association for Women in Mathematics is doing this (okay, visiting congressional offices, not addressing Congress). In 2015, the AWM leadership and student chapter members visited Capitol Hill offices to meet with congressional staffers. Georgia College students, from a chapter led by Dr. Marcela Chiorescu, describe their group’s experience in DC in this press release. Villanova’s AWM student chapter is hoping to visit congressional offices this December—so excited about this!

Are there more programs out there? Other ideas on how to serve or get involved? Let me know in the comments!

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