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Paths to Science Policy


Your fascination with pipetting is starting to wane and it's beginning to seem unlikely that the call from the Yankees or the American Ballet Theater will ever come. Your research involves stem cells, and you've been thinking hard about its ethical and political dimensions. Or maybe you've gotten involved in postdoc politics and developed a fascination for labor issues. You've had a taste of science policy, and you like it. You're considering leaving the bench behind and finding a job in science policy. Is it a good idea? Are there policy jobs out there? For scientists?

The science policy establishment is dominated by attorneys and politicians--competent people who, for the most part, have never done science and, consequently, have little idea what day-to-day science is like. As a result, they have a limited ability to understand the science behind (and, for that matter, in front of) their policy decisions. The scientific establishment long ago recognized that this is a lousy state of affairs, and it has been working to change it with programs such as the AAAS science policy fellowship, which provides on-the-job policy training for scientists.

So, as a scientist with an interest in policy, you're in demand. Yes ... there are jobs out there. For scientists.

There's more than one path to policy--if Science's Next Wave teaches anything, it's that when it comes to careers there's never just one way of doing things--but if you want to make the transition as painless as possible you should try to make the change in a sensible way.

The first decision to make is when to leave academia. Should you stay in grad school and get your Ph.D.? Should you go on and do a postdoc? Should you apply for faculty jobs, get one, get tenure, rise through the ranks, win the Nobel Prize ... and then make the switch?

The answer, as with most career-related things, is "It depends."

A relatively new path for those interested in science policy careers is academic policy training. Policy programs are nothing new; for many years, it has been possible to earn a Ph.D. in policy in an area related to science. But these days, more institutions are focusing specifically on science policy, especially at the master's degree level (see sidebar). Many of these programs allow scientists to obtain formal training in policy. At least one institution--Georgetown University--offers a master's degree program that combines policy and advocacy with scientific training in microbiology and immunology.

A sampling of Science and Technology Policy Degree Programs

Georgetown University

Virginia Tech (Northern Virginia Campus)

Columbia University

Georgia Tech

George Washington University

But is academic policy training the most effective route to a career in science policy?

Melanie Leitner, a AAAS Diplomacy fellow who last year worked as a Congessional fellow, noted that training in policy and science each has its advantages. "Studying science policy," said Leitner "may make you somewhat more conversant with the language and process of policy-makers--something a scientist may have to actively struggle with and acquire on the job--but studying science makes you more familiar with the sociology of scientists and how science is done. You are familiar with different methodologies and you develop a different perspective on the role for science in the policy arena."

Either, notes Leitner, is better than having science-policy decisions made by people who know nothing about science. "As a citizen," writes Leitner, "I would greatly prefer scientists or science-policy-trained individuals making science policy decisions than individuals who haven't had a science course since high school or who chose to major in another subject because they hated science."

Eric Werwa, who works on Capitol Hill, also thinks science training is the way to go. "I don't think I know of anyone working here who studied science policy as an academic discipline," he notes, "although there might be some around. To me, it seems that [people with academic training] have an academic perspective on the issues, wanting to do studies, etc., beyond the scope of what a typical member of the House of Representatives can take on."

Werwa stuck to academic science longer than most--long enough, in fact, to get on the tenure track and back off again. He spun a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering into a 4-year stint as a physics professor at a small liberal arts college, where he was hired to teach courses for nonmajors. He "became interested in science policy and wanted an opportunity to 'teach' this to an audience that cared more about the subject than most of the non-science majors that I was teaching." So Werwa sought an AAAS fellowship, sponsored by the Materials Research Society and the Optical Society of America. Because of his engineering background, Werwa landed in the office of Rep. Mike Honda, who sits on the House science committee and represents San Jose, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. When his fellowship ended he was hired on as a permanent staffer.

Gigi Kwik of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies at Johns Hopkins University, was even more adamant. Kwik explained, "I definitely think that it is better to be trained as a scientist. You can always read books to catch up on policy, but it is harder to catch on to the culture of science without having been a practicing scientist. That's not just my own personal experience ... but [from] looking around me [at] who makes decisions." Kwik, who entered policy work directly after a postdoc at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, notes that the longer you stay in science, the more influence you're likely to wield. "Frankly, the people who run things are senior scientists, so even though I am a scientist I'll be at a disadvantage in the policy world."

Kwik has a point. The most visible science policy positions are, indeed, almost always filled by accomplished scientists. High-profile policy-makers such as Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), must have the respect of both communities--science and government. While new paths may arise in the coming years, for now the best way to be considered for these lofty positions is to stay in research science, rise through the ranks, and have an illustrious career.

But wanting to head up NSF or NIH is obviously more of an ambition--like pitching for the Yankees or dancing for the American Ballet Theater--than a practical career objective. It would be foolish to spend 20 or 30 years doing science in hopes of someday getting the nod from whoever happens to be the U.S. president. If you want to do policy, do policy; besides, career policy wonks can be quite influential, they're just more likely to be working behind the scenes.

So what's the verdict? Most of those interviewed for this article believe that formal training in science policy is unnecessary. According to some, it can even be a disadvantage. But take that with a grain of salt: My sample was severely skewed; hardly representative. The bottom line is that there are many routes into science policy, so take the one that most appeals to you.

And remember that science policy is not really a field at all; rather it's a large collection of questions unified only by the compelling relevance of (and to) science and society. Working for a think tank on stem-cell issues is much different than advising a member of Congress on the high-tech economy. Some jobs, no doubt, require skills and knowledge that the typical young scientist lacks.

But if you're already in science, the best advice is probably this: Finish your Ph.D. and, as you're writing your dissertation, work on refining your policy-career objectives. Bone up on the areas of policy you're interested in, and home in on a few key questions of contemporary relevance. Consider a policy fellowship, like the ones AAAS offers. Engage people working in the field; these days, with e-mail, they usually aren't too difficult to contact. Respect their time, but don't be shy. Develop a dialog and a professional network. Especially if you have a strong publication record, your status as a scientist makes you relevant to the debate from the outset.

Once you've entered the discussion, it shouldn't take long to get up to speed. Even before you've found a job, you may find yourself making a meaningful contribution. Once you've done that you're at least half way to a new career.

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