Reflections from a Summer Internship as a Law Clerk at the National Science Foundation

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By Tom Byrne ’23

I spent this past summer working as a Law Clerk for the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Like most people, I had no idea what the NSF was or what they do prior to reading the position posting online. After some quick googling, I discovered that the NSF primarily funds research and development into non-medical sciences through grants, often to universities. The OIG, for whom I’d be working, provides independent oversight to the NSF.

Among other things, NSF’s OIG conducts investigations into a wide array of issues that involve the NSF. These investigations include grant fraud, foreign influence, and whistle-blower allegations, to name a few. These investigations are conducted by a collaboration of Special Agents, Investigative Scientists, and Investigative Attorneys. 

I clerked within the Investigative Attorney’s team as part of the Office of Investigations Legal Division. Members of this team wear two hats in their day-to-day roles. They not only provide legal guidance to the OIG, who in turn offers guidance to the NSF, they also take the lead or assist with investigations. Prior to law school, I worked as a financial crime investigator in the private sector. I was able to bring some of my prior investigative experience into this role. I also was able to use the skills I learned in my Legal Analysis, Writing and Research courses during my first year of law school at University at Buffalo School of Law on a number of matters that arose from the investigations. 

I was afforded the opportunity to conduct research and draft internal memorandum regarding multiple legal issues. I also created draft subpoenas, interview outlines, and assisted with other aspects of the investigative process. 

One of the internal memoranda I enjoyed drafting, and learned the most from, involved a relatively new federal whistle blower statute and a case of first impression. The department had multiple questions upon which the statute was silent. Due to the statute being relatively new, there is limited case law. To provide a proper analysis, I looked back to prior whistleblower statutes, Congressional intent in passing those statutes, and reviewed prior court rulings on similar statutes. I believe taking this indirect route to find my answer (because I could not simply rely on a prior Supreme Court ruling on my exact issue) greatly improved my legal research and writing skills. The experience forced me to not just rely on the text of the statute but to also consider policy concerns, intent, and the context of the statute. (And I thought I was done with Con Law forever).

Having the opportunity to work for NSF OIG this summer allowed me to put into practice what I have learned so far in law school, which will greatly assist in my legal education going forward. I would like to thank the University at Buffalo School of Law Dean’s Advisory Council donors who made it possible for me to partake in the summer fellowship program. Without your generous donations I, as well as many of my peers who were also funded by other donors to the UB School of Law’s Summer Public Interest Funding & Fellowship Program, would not have been able to partake in public interest programs this summer. 

I hope if you are a law student reader of this post you will seriously consider public interest work for your next internship or full-time position. Taking a position within public interest will allow you to lead from the front, and be the driving force behind the change so many desire. 

Name: Tom Byrne ’23

Name of Fellowship: University at Buffalo School of Law Dean’s Advisory Council Summer Fellowship

Placement: Office of the Inspector General for the National Science Foundation 

Location: Alexandria, Virginia

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “The experience forced me to not just rely on the text of the statute but to also consider policy concerns, intent, and the context of the statute. ”