Read our COVID-19 research and news.

A Chemist Goes to Washington


The nation's leaders struggle with bioterrorism, the supposed birth of a human clone, military nanotechnology, and battles over oil under desolate arctic tundra. These might sound like plots from a Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton novel, but they're actually all in a day's work for those in Washington's science policy community. And they are just a few of a vast array of science issues that confront U.S. political leaders and decision-makers. As a result, there is a steady and growing demand for scientists who can apply their technical expertise and strong analytical capabilities to policy issues. However, those interested in pursuing such a career should be forewarned: Policy work poses unique challenges and may prove even more frustrating than life in the lab can be.

Like several of my scientist colleagues, I came to science policy via one of the many fellowships offered by scientific and professional associations. As I neared the completion of my Ph.D. in chemistry, I looked for opportunities outside of the traditional career path--other ways to apply some of the many skills I had acquired in graduate school. After years of nurturing an interest in public affairs, I sought and was awarded an American Chemical Society (ACS) Science Policy Fellowship. This program involves a 1- or 2-year commitment to work as a staff member in the society's Office of Legislative and Government Affairs (or, as it is more affectionately known, OLGA).

The ACS Fellowship is unique in allowing one to jump right in and become a true science lobbyist. Not only do I meet with members of Congress and officials from federal agencies to discuss matters deemed important to the advancement of science, but I also work closely with others in OLGA who are developing ACS public policy positions, researching and analyzing policy issues, and trying to educate policy-makers about the science behind the issues. As part of the relatively small science policy community in Washington, I am also well positioned to observe all of the political battles of the day and get the inside scoop on whatever hot science policy topic happens to be splashed across the nation's newspapers.

And what exactly are the issues and agendas that engage the ACS and the rest of the science policy community? Perhaps not surprisingly, the most prominent one is money. About a quarter of all research and development in the United States is funded by the federal government, but almost half of all basic research--the pursuit of fundamental rather than applied knowledge--is government supported. In 2000, that translated into $23 billion of basic research funding, about 60% of which was spent in U.S. colleges and universities. The total R&D budget should top $100 billion this year. Because tens of thousands of students, professors, and other scientists depend on this cash, the budgets and funding policies of many federal agencies receive a great deal of attention from the science policy community.

The most important funding agencies for chemistry are the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institutes of Health, but chemical research is actually spread out across the government. My job has taken me to congressional offices to press for more money for research at the Environmental Protection Agency, and it has had me writing letters to the Department of Defense arguing for greater attention to science and technology, including physical and computational chemistry, to help shore up the nation's military capabilities.

Of course, science policy work involves much more than budgets. The science community has an important voice in decisions about the nation's research agenda, as the ongoing debates on stem cells and human cloning demonstrate. ACS has a particular interest in the use of science in regulatory policy, trying to ensure that data, results, and analysis are properly applied to help achieve the best balance among cost, benefit, and risk. However, no event has more profoundly shaped the political and policy environment in Washington than the terrorist attacks of 2001. Science policy has changed too, with new priorities for research and new pressures on science to help improve security, especially against bioterrorism.

At OLGA, I keep a close eye on these developments and help prepare positions for the ACS on the ones that might affect science. For example, the new Department of Homeland Security will include a large Directorate of Science and Technology that could become a major supporter of chemical research, including sensor technologies and new drugs against bioweapons. At the same time, the government is considering the tightening of controls on foreign students, visiting scientists, and even some research publications, so as not to aid terrorist organizations and enemy nations. Science, like the rest of society, is facing the dilemmas of an uncertain world and questions on how to balance freedom with security. These are issues that are likely to occupy the science policy community for some time to come.

Because so many policy issues have a technical dimension, there is plenty for scientists to do in Washington. Fellowship programs are a great way to break into Congress, federal agencies, and the science policy community. If, like me, you are coming directly out of the lab with no real public affairs experience, you will probably need to do something to prove you are interested and willing to devote some time to applying science beyond the lab. I took an undergraduate class in public policy at my university. I also volunteered for two local nonprofit environmental groups. I became their scientific point-person, someone who knew the way around scientific literature and was able to distill information for them. Participation in local political or student-government groups is also helpful.

Besides fellowships, there are many other paths into science policy. Internships are available through the National Academies as well as various other nonprofit groups and think tanks. Because they last only a few months, internships allow you to get your feet wet and find out if policy work is right for you. Federal agencies and national labs offer numerous positions for scientists, including administrative and program management jobs. These jobs can be a great way to come to Washington and begin working in fields that involve applying science for national interests. They may also eventually lead to science policy careers.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is talk to others who have taken these alternative career paths. They can help you think through whether science policy fits your interests and career goals, and they can help point you in the right direction to get started. In any case, even if you do decide to return to the lab after trying science policy, you will have gained a perspective on the world of science that far too few of its practitioners will ever have. Good luck!