RWJF’s New Health Policy Fellows Aren't What You'd Expect. What's Going On?

RWJF’s Health Policy Fellows program is basically a giant mentoring program. Fellows get a year-long crash course in health policy in Washington, D.C., mostly by way of shadowing sitting elected officials and folks serving on federal agencies.

Sixty percent of fellows have worked in the Senate; 28 percent have worked in the House. The list of representatives who’ve been involved with RWJF fellows includes such luminaries as John Kerry, Al Gore, Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama. It’s where you go if you’re a mid-career MD or DNP or even PhD looking to get involved in health policy on some level. The program is in its 41st year, and has a star-studded catalog of alumni.

So when we took a peek at the seven new fellows who’ve been named for the 2014-15 cycle, we were expecting this group to reflect RWJF’s ground-up approach to public health, bringing cardio specialists, oncologists and nutritionists into the fold. Maybe there would be a few hospital administration folks for good measure. We thought we knew what we’d find. And we were wrong, wrong, wrong. What we found surprised us, and it should surprise you, too.

And what was that? Defense, defense, defense. Five out of the seven fellows have some connection to the Defense Department, the U.S. military, conflict resolution studies, or some combination of the three.

Curve ball!

There’s a pediatrician who trained in risk communication and message mapping in the wake of 9/11. There’s a psychologist who’s worked to end armed conflict in Asia. There’s the former traumatic brain injury program manager for the Naval Center San Diego.

This emphasis on defense certainly seems unlikely, coming from RWJF. But regardless, it’s impossible to notice that last year’s slate of fellows looked just like IP editors expected it might—two clinical nutritionists, an epidemiologist, a few pediatricians, and a couple of cancer docs for good measure. What does it mean that defense is playing such a big role this year?

To understand it, I think you need to take a step back and look at the big picture. This announcement reflects the foundation’s broader move toward more interdisciplinary giving. It wants to get involved with health grantees, initiatives, and projects that cross barriers. Its nursing program is getting way more intellectually rigorous, and its new Culture of Health is about way more than just healthy eating and getting some exercise. It’s about infrastructure and politics and, ultimately, how American society is organized. Bringing in these folks with experience in defense probably has a lot to do with RWJF’s search for intellectually committed, versatile thinkers—and these new folks are clearly just that.