At the Center of International Debates


'So, what do you do for a living?' We all know this standard party question for which a simple answer is generally expected (e.g., I'm an accountant), but I have yet to find an adequate 'sound bite' to explain my work in international science policy.

I knew nothing about the possible career opportunities in science policy when I was pursuing an undergraduate chemistry degree at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (1988-92). But what I did realize was that the path of 'pure' science felt too restrictive for me, and that my interests in environmental science were matched by interests in environmental politics. Thankfully, the university allowed me to develop a multidisciplinary 'environmental studies' programme that met all these interests. I then chose to pursue a PhD in atmospheric chemistry at the University of Colorado, where my research focused on measuring the atmospheric distribution of certain greenhouse gases. Graduate school was a wonderful experience, but once again, it felt a bit frustrating to have all of my efforts focusing on narrow technical questions that seemed to have little bearing on the underlying environmental concerns.

As I was avidly following the public debates about climate change, I noticed that a few scientists (mostly based in Washington, D.C.) were essentially serving as 'translators' between the research community and the media, politicians, etc. This seemed like a fascinating and important role to play, and so to find out more about these types of opportunities, I arranged a series of 'informational interviews' with people at various federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations in Washington. (I was able to find several excellent contacts simply by researching the Web sites of these organizations.)

"Best bridge between the worlds of science and policy"

A message I heard over and over again was that the AAAS fellowships were the best bridge between the worlds of science and policy. So I applied and fortunately was accepted as an AAAS Environmental Science Fellow, where I worked in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Office of Atmospheric Programs in Washington, D.C. The AAAS fellowships (open to U.S. citizens) are designed to give scientists, including social scientists and engineers, experience working within various U.S. federal government agencies and other 'policy-relevant' organizations. At the time of my appointment (1996), the Environmental Science Fellowship was just a summer programme, but it has since been expanded to a 1-year appointment. The fellows are generally given significant latitude in designing their own projects, and my work focused on evaluating the methods used by EPA to estimate the radiative forcing (greenhouse effect) of different greenhouse gases and aerosols.

As promised, the fellowship was an eye-opening education, and it also led to a job position at the National Research Council (NRC, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences) in Washington. I ended up spending 6 years there, directing assessment studies related to climate change and atmospheric sciences. Like a lot of Washington jobs, the work was stressful but very rewarding, as I felt that I was truly having an impact on national policy decisions. It was not uncommon for the results of our work to make national news headlines or to become the focus of a congressional hearing, which was a real buzz.

Most NRC studies focused on U.S. interests however; and given the inherently global nature of the issues I was addressing, I grew increasingly interested in understanding how science and policy intersect at the international level. Thus, when I heard about a position opening at the International Council for Science (ICSU), I decided to go for it. I must admit, the fact that the job was in Paris did influence my decision! So with only a few weeks' notice, and the French-speaking skills of a 2-year-old, I moved overseas to begin my next adventure.

ICSU is a nongovernmental organization whose mission is to 'strengthen international science for the benefit of society'. The organization is at the center of a global network of national scientific members from 101 countries and international scientific unions. ICSU works on activities such as building the scientific capacity of developing countries, assuring open access to scientific data, creating new international, interdisciplinary research programmes (most notably in the realm of global environmental change), and serving as a 'voice for science' at conferences and summits of the United Nations and other international policy bodies. ICSU's work is supported by the dues of our national members and by grants from international agencies (such as UNESCO) and private organizations (such as the Packard Foundation).

My job involves representing the organization at international meetings and coordinating the activities of volunteer advisory committees composed of top scientists from around the world. Some of the work is fairly administrative in nature--such as putting together reports, planning meetings, and managing project budgets. But this work also requires a great deal of substantive input to the advisory committees' deliberations. In fact, one of the great rewards of my job is getting to sit at the deliberation table with many of the world's most brilliant scientific minds and being seen as a 'peer'. International science policy requires having the confidence to work with highly multidisciplinary, multicultural groups of people and a willingness to deal with scientific and technical issues that often lie outside your immediate areas of expertise. And of course, strong written and verbal communication skills are always of great importance.

Important, fascinating, frustrating

Much of ICSU's current planning efforts are focusing on science and technology for sustainable development, which aims to integrate environmental protection, economic development, and social well-being. This is an important, fascinating, but also frustrating realm of endeavor. The first challenge is the overwhelming question of where to start, since the concept of sustainable development encompasses almost all aspects of human existence. Another major challenge of 'sustainability science' is that it pushes the traditional boundaries of research. Rather than just studying and documenting the problems caused by human influences on the natural environment, the goal is often to work with local politicians, industry leaders, and civic groups to develop and implement solutions to these problems. Within this more activist role, one must constantly grapple to define the acceptable line between science and advocacy; and one must become used to viewing scientists as just one of many stakeholders in a highly collaborative process.

There are times when I miss the 'unambiguous' nature of traditional scientific research, where each new discovery is a clear, enduring addition to the collective body of human knowledge. In the fuzzier realm of science policy, the ultimate impacts of your efforts are often difficult to judge and are highly perishable. On the whole however, I think there is a great need for organizations such as ICSU, which strive to ensure that the knowledge of the scientific community is communicated to a broader audience and brought to bear on real-world needs. I sometimes imagine that if individual scientific discoveries are like words, then I have the opportunity to string these words together to create stories that are meaningful to the whole of society.

It has been a fascinating journey thus far, and I look forward to seeing where it takes me next. Meanwhile, I am doing my best to find a way that explains all this in a 'party-sized' sound bite!

Laurie Geller can be contacted at the: International Council for Science, 51 boulevard de Montmorency, FR-75016 Paris, France, or by e-mailing:

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