Bridging the Worlds of Science and Public Policy

What's it like being the conduit between the very different worlds of politics and science? Ask Nancy Kingsbury, and she'll tell you that her work as a science advisor for the government of Canada is a lot like being an interpreter. "I translate science to the bureaucrats and politicians and translate the bureaucracy to the scientists."

Kingsbury has been the Science Advisor on Climate Change for the Canadian Forest Services at the Department of Natural Resources for over two years. She advises politicians on how the federal government does science, the kind of science they do, and how it is applies to federal policy. Working with more than 40 full-time government scientists, she coordinates forest-ecology management programs and advises departmental ministers on policy. For her, the key to her job is acting as an interface between these two worlds--which can be challenging at times. "There is a lot of good science out there, but it's a matter of getting it to the folks that write policy in a way they understand it." says Kingsbury.

Personal Pathway

Kingsbury's passion for science is rooted in research. She earned her doctorate in geography in 1999 from Toronto's York University, specializing in forest resource management. Her research in forest-fire ecology took her to tropical destinations like Venezuela and Guyana, where she learned to survive--indeed, to flourish--in a fast-paced and volatile environment. It was a good training ground for work in the government, she says only half-jokingly.

Field work in Venezuela and Guyana

While she loved doing fieldwork, she found it hard to balance a life in research with parenthood. After her studies, she landed a job as a sessional lecturer at McGill University but knew right off that it was not for her. Teaching topics that did not interest her drained her excitement for science. After an extensive web search for other opportunities, she stumbled upon an ad for the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. At first she was hesitant to apply because of the fear that taking on an alternative career in policy might be construed as being a failure as a scientist. But since her dual citizenship made her eligible to apply for this postdoc-level program and only a limited number of avenues were open to her, she decided it was worth taking the risk. She won a fellowship, packed her bags, and headed to Washington, D.C., to work as a Science Analyst at the United States Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

  But it was during her fellowship that Kingsbury realized how misplaced her fears really had been, and actually started to think that this was the career path that she wanted to pursue. Her preconceived idea that a career in government was for researchers who had failed in academia went out the window. "I realized that I could be working with really smart people if I work for the government--as bright as those you'll find at universities and as challenging and interested in new ideas." she says. "These were the same things that attracted me to academia, but now I knew that I could get this outside of the ivory tower."

But Kingsbury credits her Ph.D. for getting her as far as she has gone in her career. While 10 to 15 years ago there was a definite hiring boom for scientists, there was plenty of room for people with only M.Sc. degrees. Landing a science advisory position in the government today however, requires a minimum of 7 years of field experience, in addition to the Masters or Ph.D. A nice bonus for better-educated and more experienced scientists: The government compensates you for the number of years of education with a higher salary and higher position level.

"[Scientific training] definitely helps ? to get along with scientists and get them to share their results and be more active in the policy-making process," she says. "I found that if I didn't have a Ph.D. and a publication record, I wouldn't have gotten people in this field to look at me."

Job Trends

According to Kingsbury there are well over a hundred science advisor positions scattered amongst the five federal departments identified as primarily dealing with science: Natural Resources, Oceans and Fisheries, Agriculture Canada, Environment Canada, and Health Canada. Each of these agencies have scientists on staff that work in the lab and the field and have expectations of publication, just like in a university position. Defense and national security are hot fields where advisor positions will likely be needed. Any openings in the foreseeable future, however, will depend on the government that is in power.

While Kingsbury knows of no science policy fellowships in Canada, there are other ways of getting into science advising. Many of Kingsbury's colleagues with Ph.D.s came from industry, where they worked on applied science projects. Others worked for non-profit think tanks and non-governmental organizations.

Applying Your Skills

Problem solving and critical thinking --skills she honed throughout her training--are keys to success in policy work, according to Kingsbury. "Even if you are not doing science when you are an advisor, you definitely bring your training as a scientist to the table ? and this can be of great benefit," she adds.

Impact of science policy on Kyoto Accord

An example: Recently she gave a presentation on climate change to an intimidating audience that included leaders from the Ministry of Natural Resources, Science and Technology Council and representatives from the oil, gas, and forestry industries. Knowing that some of those in the room didn't believe in climate change didn't make it any easier either. It's in situations like this that she brings her scientist skills to bear. "I took it as a lab experiment where I had to look at the conditions, assess the requirements; in some ways it was very much like anthropological field work." she says with a smile. "Observational skills allowed me to focus in on issues that the audience was interested in and what they wanted to hear."

These days Kingsbury's agenda is filled with meetings with ministers and scientists from a range of agencies about assessing research and funding for forestry and climate change projects. She also writes reports and background briefs advising government ministers on the impacts of science and policy decisions on the Kyoto Accord. From time to time she even writes speeches for ministers. For her, it's fun and fulfilling work. "I love my job, and even though I work a lot more than my stated 37.5 hours, I get flexibility and am allowed to do innovative things, and get to work with smart people."

Kingsbury believes that scientists who choose to work for the government instead of universities do so because they have a real commitment to civil service. "They are working for Canada, helping to improve the lives of Canadians."

"In many cases, if you want to be at the centre of the action, you look for a job with the government."

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at

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