Beyond Borders: The IAI STeP fellowship program in the Americas

Published On: November 2021Categories: 2021 Conference Editorials, Editorials


Ana Watson

University of Calgary

PhD Candidate

Inter American Institute for Global Change (IAI) STeP Fellow

Shweta Ganapati

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)

Acting Senior Program Analyst

IAI STeP Fellow

Marga Gual Soler


Founder and Director

A compilation of the headshots of three women,

There are different avenues for science to inform policy. In-house government specialists. Task forces, committees, and blue-ribbon panels. International consultations. But the key ingredient to evidence-informed decision making is not facts and data, but people. The individuals who are trained in technical fields but understand the policymaking process and can convey information in a clear and concise way so it can be taken up by policymakers. STeP is a pioneer fellowship program of early career scientists supporting government decisions in the Americas in a diversity of disciplines ranging from the biological sciences to economics and socio-environmental studies. 

Fellowship programs are effective mechanisms to cultivate transformative talent that is essential to governments. Since 2018, for example, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada has taken on five Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellows ranging in expertise from environmental and biological sciences to chemistry and astrophysics. These fellows work across the NSERC directorates to help the organization in different ways with its mission to fund scientific and technical breakthroughs that will benefit Canada. 

Training early career scientists to give advice and communicate science, by placing them in government agencies where they work at the science-policy interface, is not new in high income countries. But the IAI’s Science, Technology and Policy (STeP) fellowships launched in 2020 with a focus on environmental change and sustainable development are certainly novel in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

So far, partnerships for implementation have been secured with Mitacs Canada, AAAS in the US, CREA CONICET in Argentina, SECTEI in Mexico, the Brazilian Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the Brazilian Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation, Panama’s National Secretariat of Science Technology and Innovation (SENACYT) and the University of the West Indies.  

Early career scientists informing policy across the Americas 

With a focus on national priorities, fellows are learning together about science diplomacy and transdisciplinary approaches while building networks across borders. For example, STeP fellows from Canada, Mexico, and the US are working on a joint science diplomacy project aimed at increasing stakeholder engagement to share data at the global health-climate change nexus.  

Within the transportation, environment and health ministries of Mexico City, a group of early career researchers have provided cost-benefit analyses on waste management for circular economy planning, recommendations on sustainable best practices for urban mobility, and strategies to strengthen training programs and health information systems in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Finally, a Peruvian engineer pursuing a PhD degree in geography at the University of Calgary is researching socio-environmental issues related to conservation and development programs in the Amazon River basin. Through this work, Canadian and Peruvian institutions are gaining insights and knowledge in how to develop inclusive frameworks for biodiversity conservation in extractive dependent economies.

A transdisciplinary and transboundary approach

For almost 30 years, the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research  (IAI) has been working with 19 member states in the Americas, including Canada, to implement innovative transdisciplinary science buttressed by capacity building programs for both early career and senior researchers with a particular emphasis on facilitating talent and knowledge mobility across the hemisphere. The STeP program builds on the IAI’s long track record of serving governments with the vision of enabling a well-informed, inclusive, and sustainable Americas, so that countries are better able to address the challenges posed by global environmental change (GEC).  

IAI Parties adopted a recently updated scientific agenda which is grounded in the principles of scientific excellence and integrity, and the full and open exchange of science to address complex GEC issues.  Canada’s focal point for the IAI, Environment and Climate Change Canada, recognizes that through strong regional partners like the IAI, Canadian institutions can benefit from the vast network of government officials, scientists, policy makers, and stakeholders throughout the Americas working on the same issues that are at the core of their mandate. 

STeP fellows as agents of change

The IAI’s 40 STeP Fellows come from a diversity of geographic, cultural, and disciplinary backgrounds and origins. Amidst this richness, many of the stories and aspirations of the fellows are the same. They are eager to listen and learn from each other and apply their expertise to solve somewhat daunting problems together. The practical experience that they accrue through the program, coupled with new perspectives on inclusive and participatory science-diplomacy, is brought back to their home countries and host institutions, accompanying them as they embark on their careers, many destined to become agents of change and future science-policy leaders in the Americas.   

While fellows benefit from this experience by building skills and networks, host institutions also stand to gain. Early career researchers are keen on bringing their personal interests to collaboratively work with diverse stakeholders, including colleagues from different disciplines, policy makers, indigenous communities, and international relations professionals, thus expanding the host institution’s engagement with stakeholders. STeP fellows that are partnered with the right supervisor, mentor and program can align their science passions and skills with core institutional values, thereby having a greater impact in society, bringing science beyond the walls of academia.

Supporting an international science policy ecosystem in the region such as the STeP fellowship program to train the future generation of science-policy scholars, practitioners, and leaders, will provide countries with scientific information to design and implement policies to prevent, mitigate, and adapt to global environmental change and other as yet unknown challenges.