Capitol Hill’s STEM Skills Gap Targeted by Tech Fellowships

  • Fellowships bring technologists, engineers to Capitol Hill
  • Only 11 members of Congress have engineering backgrounds

Technology advocates and lawmakers are eyeing fellowship programs to boost the technical expertise on Capitol Hill after Congress’s dearth of science and technology experience was laid bare during hearings with Facebook and other tech companies.

“There is a large skills gap in Congress in terms of people who have had training in technology,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), one of the four members of Congress with a computer science degree.

“You see the same phenomenon among staff where many do not have technical degrees, whether it’s engineering or science,” he said in an interview. “It causes a lack of information and understanding when legislation does appear.”

The knowledge gap was most apparent in last April’s hearings with Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg that followed the Cambridge Analytica data breach, where some lawmakers struggled to grasp how the social media platform worked.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Zuckerberg speaks during a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees in April 2018.

Queries to Zuckerberg from senators on both sides showed a lack of understanding about Facebook and its products. One Republican asked how Facebook stays in business if its services are free. Zuckerberg answered that they run ads. A Democrat asked whether Facebook can read “emails” on the text messaging application WhatsApp, which Facebook owns. Zuckerberg said the messages are encrypted, meaning that third parties can’t access them.

Investing in Talent

Programs like Tech Congress and the Aspen Tech Policy Hub see an opportunity to step in and train technologists and engineers on public policy to eventually educate lawmakers. Simultaneously, renewed efforts to re-establish Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment, defunct since 1995, are gaining more bipartisan support and momentum than in previous years.

“Post Mark Zuckerberg’s hearings on the Hill, there was tremendous interest coming out of line engineers, managers, and people working in the Valley to get more involved in policy, but there really weren’t any mechanisms set up to enable them to do that,” said Betsy Cooper, director of the Aspen Tech Policy Hub, the Aspen Institute’s technology policy incubator based in California’s Bay Area.

To address the issue, the Hub launched its inaugural Incubator Fellows program this summer, selecting 15 technologists from more than 200 applicants across industry, government, and nonprofits to train on public policy.

Cooper said the program wants to address the “lack of practicality,” especially in the policy and think tank world in Washington. Instead of having fellows write lengthy white papers, they are developing more practical tools such as educational games and advocacy tool kits. She said she wants to take the creativity of the Silicon Valley start-up process and apply it to policy.

Separately, Tech Congress has been working to fill the tech knowledge gap on the Hill by bringing 23 fellows to Capitol Hill since 2016. It aims to train technologists for potential future careers in Congress, federal agencies, think tanks and even within tech companies to influence technology policy. Three alumni have landed jobs as technology policy advisers in the offices of Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

“Ultimately, our goal is to galvanize the institution to invest in technology talent,” said Travis Moore, founder and director of Tech Congress and previously the legislative director for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.)

One of the alumni helped found the Congressional Tech Staff Association, an informal group that organizes staff trainings and briefings on tech issues in ways that aren’t agenda driven.

“That is one really positive, meaningful outcome that is helping the institution keep up to date,” Moore said.

‘Not A Supply Problem’

The lack of members of Congress with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math is noticeable.

In the 116th Congress, there were 11 engineers: 10 in the House and one in the Senate. That is an improvement from the 115th Congress, which had just eight engineers: seven in the House and one in the Senate. There have been six software company executives in the House and two in the Senate in the 115th and 116thCongresses, according to the Congressional Research Service.

But when it comes to technologists wanting to work on the Hill, “it is not a supply problem at all,” Moore said. “We had 400 people apply for the program last cycle.”

“There is a really strong contingent of engineers, computer scientists, data scientists, product managers who want to put their skills to use for the public interest,” he said. But, “there are very few pathways for them.”

Deirdre Mulligan, associate professor at University of California Berkeley’s School of Information, sees increased interest in the nascent field of public interest technology, which focuses on the social, political and legal implications of tech policy.

“I think the pipeline is growing and the pipeline is super thin, meaning, the career paths for students, the opportunities to do fellowships, are still pretty sparse,” said Mulligan, who helped found the tech think tank Center for Democracy and Information.

But graduates from Aspen’s fellowship are optimistic they can find ways to influence policy in their communities. Ora Tanner, a member of Aspen’s Incubator Fellows program, said she wants to educate policy makers on bias in data sets within school districts in her home state of Florida.

“As lawmakers turn to technologies as solutions for these social problems, I want to be a part of that conversation and at least be able to make sure they’re understanding it,” she said.

High Stakes

The stakes are high for Congress to better understand the social and political impacts of technology, according to Lieu.

He is among several Democrats and Republicans pushing for Congress to revive the Office of Technology Assessment to educate lawmakers on emerging technologies and their potential risks.

“Technology can be very complicated and it can change very quickly. When you pass a law in Congress, if you get it wrong, the only way to fix that is another act of Congress,” he said.

“That’s why you have to get it right the first time, and especially in areas dealing with technology, we need as much assistance as we can get,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rkern@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Jonathan Nicholson at jnicholson@bgov.com