Public interest groups say there aren't nearly enough tech geeks working for nonprofits and in government. New research from Mozilla and its partner, the Ford Foundation, finds that barely 10 percent of computer science students wind up working in those sectors. The vast majority — 70 percent — go to big, wealthy tech companies. While that's great for Google and Facebook, Mozilla believes building good public policy around technology means attracting more technologists directly to public service.
So the maker of the popular Firefox browser is kicking off a fellowship program designed to put young engineers in a position to affect how tech policy, particularly when it comes to managing the Internet, gets crafted in Washington. With a beginning budget of $4 million and an eye toward hiring five fellows this year, Mozilla and the Ford Foundation eventually intend to scale up the program to a total of 23 fellows over the next three years. The first fellows to be selected will spend their time at public interest groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Free Press, the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, and Public Knowledge.
"To grapple with this big social issue called the future of the Internet, we need experts in the social and democratic issues and people who are experts in the technology," said Mark Surman, Mozilla's executive director. "We're looking for individuals who have a deep technical knowledge of the Internet and at the same time see and are motivated by the broader social and political issues."
The fellowship is modeled after a similar program that Mozilla launched in conjunction with the Knight Foundation. That program places programmers and data experts at news outlets around the country (including the Washington Post). But beyond giving nonprofits and the government an injection of tech talent, the broader aim is to develop a pipeline, one that tells civic-minded engineers there's an alternative to Silicon Valley.
The big tech policy problems of the day are complicated. They're complicated because they involve a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo, which has always been true. But they're also complicated because technology is getting increasingly complex itself — and making a case to skeptical lawmakers or regulators requires a grasp of technology that's often beyond the expertise of a lawyer or lobbyist.