Bring Statistics to Policy Through Internships
This month’s science policy guest columnist, Mary Gray, provides a path for younger members of the statistical community to plant the seeds for influencing policymaking. Gray describes various opportunities and benefits of internships, along with the legal aspects for ensuring a worthwhile experience. ~Steve Pierson, ASA Director of Science Policy
Mary Gray is a professor of mathematics and statistics at American University. As a lawyer and human rights activist, she encourages her students to share her interest in the role of statistics in formulating and implementing public policy.
Public policy based on statistical analysis—perhaps a Utopian dream. But there is a crack in the door through which the statistical community might be able to increase the influence of our discipline. Student internships have long been an important part of both undergraduate and graduate education in many institutions. With the tightening economy, such experience is increasingly sought after, even in fields with excellent job prospects.
Internships, paid or unpaid, are supposed to constitute training for career development, not free or cheap labor for routine clerical tasks. The law is quite clear about this, and employers can be found to be in violation of minimum wage and other regulations if they fail to satisfy the requirements. Most colleges and universities are careful to verify with employers that clerical-type work will not form any substantial proportion of the interns’ duties.
The U.S. Department of Labor applies the following six criteria to determine whether a position is exempt from the requirement to pay a minimum wage and overtime:
1. The training is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff
4. The employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship
The last requirement may appear difficult to meet, but employers are usually found to be in compliance if they can show that the internship is actually part of an educational program (thus many employers require that students be registered for credit).
On the other hand, a student may volunteer to provide service to a nonprofit organization or public agency for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons—an exception that does not apply to commercial employers, but it does to government.
Many internships provide significant training for statistics students, both in technical skills and in working with ‘clients’ for whom an analysis is being done. Institutions learn where their students are likely to have a valuable experience and send their best students; employers are happy to provide mentoring while at the same time receiving excellent help with many substantive aspects of their work.
But there is another potential benefit. Students could come to understand the role statistics can and should play in the formulation of public policy. In fact, they can even become advocates for increased reliance on statistics.
Not only the DC-area universities, but institutions throughout the country send their students to work ‘on The Hill’ and in the executive branch or state and local agencies. Students find being a part, however small, of the legislative process exciting; it looks good on résumés, there’s lots of free food, etc. What they actually learn may not be much that acts as training in their field; however, it is a great opportunity to discover how statistics can be used in public policy, even if it means doing some research and implementation outside the strict confines of their job.
Optimistically, students might get a congressional staff member interested in the relevance of statistics to legislation on health, education, or the economy in general and find that work they do actually enters into the consideration of policy formulation and support. Even if not, they receive training that can prove useful in their careers by expanding their understanding of how policy is made and could be made better through the use of statistics—knowledge they can implement in their future work.
The Hill is not the only place where policy is formulated. How about some statistical input into the lobbying process? Interning with the multitude of lobbyists (in home districts and in DC), whose influence on policy may be deplored but has positive effects as well, can provide a fertile training ground for the understanding of the role of statistics in public policy. Many lobbyists represent business interests (and are, themselves, commercial enterprises) so that internships, at least in theory, should be paid. But nonprofits also seek to influence public policy—for example, the ASA speaks for the interests of its members.
Public policy internships can be useful to both the organizations and the interns. A short-term stint is unlikely to have a profound effect on the corporations and nonprofits that influence and make public policy, but the understanding of how both lobbying in general and statistics in particular can be entwined in policy formulation can play a part in the subsequent careers of embryonic statisticians. Moreover, it cannot be bad if, during their internships, they can be a voice for basing policy on statistics no matter one’s political views.
The notion of public policy as part of training for statisticians can usefully be extended to undergraduate and graduate experience beyond internships. There are beneficial side benefits—considering public policy provides extensive opportunities for much-valued interdisciplinary work. Finally, internships can be preparation for responsible citizenship and effectiveness as a statistician.
There are myriad ways to find an internship, starting with your own university’s resources. You also should contact your own representative—for home and school residences—and senators, as well as consult websites such as Internships.com and the Amstat News internship listing. Many universities keep track of the employment of their graduates, who can be a great source of internships for current students, so check with your department faculty and the campus career center for more information.
Science Policy Actions
ASA president submits comments for written record of December Senate Hearing, “Turning the Investigation on the Science of Forensics.”
ASA signs onto letter opposing components of GRANT Act, H.R. 3433.
ASA signs onto letter urging opposing components of Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bills in the House that weaken STEM education.
ASA submits the comments for the OSTP request for information, “Public Access to Digital Data Resulting from Federally Funded Scientific Research.”
ASA signs onto letter opposing the diversion of NIH/NSF research funding to non-research awards.