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Science Policy: Establishing Guidelines, Setting Priorities

What is the definition of "postdoc"? How are your nation's research dollars allocated? Who decides on funding priorities for supercolliders and space shuttles? Who steers the debates on bioterrorism and stem cell research? If these kinds of questions interest you, you should think about a career in science policy.

Over the past year, I have been pulled over any number of times by graduate students and postdocs asking for information on science policy careers. They ask: What kind of training is needed? Where should I turn for fellowships? What are the options for non-U.S. citizens? All of this is asked in hushed tones.

As one of our essayists comments, a science policy career is still a science career. On top of that, some high-flying scientists have tried to make science policy a mainstream career choice.

The Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government has been working for some time to increase the number of scientists in policy positions. In 1992, the commission issued a report to the U.S. president and Congress outlining the importance of having science inform decisions in four key policy areas: economy, defense, environment, and science education. The report stated, "It is our conviction that decisions on these and other critical issues will require governmental access to the best available scientific and technological information."

Ten years later, their findings still hold: Scientists need to engage in policy issues.

Which brings us back to the key question of this feature: How do you enter a career in policy? In talking to scientists who have gone this route there is a common thread: volunteer. Get involved in policy forums, community outreach, and anything else that will help you get your feet wet in the policy arena. With the right qualifications, you can go straight from your Ph.D. or postdoc into a policy job in a think tank or governmental agency, or you can opt to do a 1 to 2 year fellowship or internship. You can also, as some of our essayists have done, go back to school to train in public policy.

Most of the opportunities for training in policy are based in the United States and require U.S. citizenship. However, other countries are beginning to develop initiatives to encourage scientists to take part in policy decisions. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR, a sponsor of Next Wave Canada) has launched a Science Policy Initiative, which, in turn, has spawned several academic policy-training programs. In the UK, the Royal Society has launched a pairing scheme between scientists and members of Parliament (MP). Opportunities also exist to participate in shaping policy without leaving the bench--most professional societies have policy committees on which society members can serve.

Whether it is through pairing schemes, a short-term internship, or by embracing a new career full time, being a part of the policy debate is a fine, concrete way to have an impact on science. Is it a good career move? That's up to you to decide. But all our essayists love their jobs.

Why should scientists go into policy?

Scientists and Engineers Needed to Help Guide Federal Policy Development . Scientific and technological leadership is vital to maintaining a nation's competitiveness, ensuring national defense, protecting the environment, creating high-wage jobs, and advancing the quality of life. John Sargent, a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Department of Commerce, argues that for these reasons--and more--it is imperative that scientists and engineers engage themselves in the public policy process.

Aftermaths . The editor-in-chief of Science magazine urges us to consider new means of increasing science and technology training for people who may enter decision-making roles in the policy sector.

Scientists Moving Into the Tech-Transfer World . New policies will have a positive effect on health and welfare only if they are grounded in a solid understanding of scientific, legal, and policy-analysis systems.

Making Science Work: My Career in Science Policy . Overseeing a wide range of neuroscience topics was a new and exciting prospect for Kathie Olsen, who was first lured from her laboratory by NSF to run a grants program. She subsequently has created a program for underrepresented minorities in science, done a sabbatical on Capitol Hill, been chief scientist at NASA, and is now the associate director for science at the Office for Science and Technology Policy.

Young Spanish Researchers: Fighting for their Rights . The experience of the Young Researchers' Federation in Spain shows that PhDs and postdocs can influence science policy, if they shout loudly enough--but it takes time and perseverance.

How to make the transition

Paths to a Career in Policy . So you want to go into policy. But when should you make the leap--as a graduate student, postdoc, or after you've launched an academic career? Next Wave's Jim Austin explores the pros and cons.

Young Policy Researchers: Making a Difference . A Canadian federal initiative recognises the achievements of young policy researchers and encourages them to communicate their research.

Advancing Health Law and Policy . A new interdisciplinary program at Dalhousie University focuses on training the next generation of health law and policy researchers.

A Chemist Goes to Washington . Michael Eichberg explains how a fellowship at the American Chemical Society allowed a policy neophyte like himself a chance to jump right into the thick of things and meet with members of Congress and officials from federal agencies to discuss matters important to the advancement of science.

A "Hands-on" Approach to Science, Technology and Innovation Policy . The Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology (CPROST) is one of the few academic centres specifically devoted to science, technology, and innovation (STI) policy in Canada. CPROST brings together practitioners and scholars to study the interaction of advances in STI, their implementation in the marketplace, and their impacts on community and individual interests.

Scenes From Washington: Experiences of a Science Policy Fellow . Interested in a policy fellowship but flummoxed by the variety of opportunities to choose from? Melanie Leitner explains the differences between working for an elected U.S. representative, on a legislative committee, or in a U.S. federal agency.

Bioscientists, Bioterrorism, and National Security . Taking stock of his interests during the final years of graduate school, Brad Smith found three broad themes: biology, politics, and national security. They intersected in the area of biological weapons and bioterrorism. He now works as a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies.

At the Junction of Science and Policy . After a stint managing the Research Training Fellowships for Medical Students program at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Andrea Stith decided she wanted to understand, first hand, how science-funding priorities are established on a national level. She is currently an AAAS fellow working at NSF.

Changing Perceptions . A new scheme started by the UK's elite science academy, the Royal Society, is designed to build bridges between politicians and scientists. Judging by the experiences of two researchers who took part in the MP-scientist pairing scheme, it seems to be having the desired effect.

Career opportunities

So You Want to be a Parliamentary Scientific Advisor? Ex-physicist and glaciologist Chandrika Nath was always interested in the broader and more tangible issues in science and, for this reason, after ten years in academia made the transition to science policy. She is now working at the heart of the U.K. national science policy wing as an advisor at the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology in London.

From Bench to BMBF . Kristina Boehlke, a PhD studying thermostable enzymes, jumped at the opportunity to become personal assistant to German science minister, Edelgard Bulmahn. Now, ready to make her next career move in science policy, Boehlke looks back over the lessons she has learned over the past 2 years.

Weaving In and Out of Science: Biomedical Research and Health Policy . Jai Shah ignored those who told him he lacked focus and needed to specialize. After earning a degree in biology, he went back to school for a master's in international health policy and he is now research officer to the president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

From Ecosystems to the Political System . To combine his interest in research with a wider interest in science, Peter Cotgreave took on the directorship of Save British Science, a campaigning organisation that presses the governments in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast for better funding for science, stronger science education in schools, and policies that allow the general public to have greater access to the benefits of scientific and technological research.

Between the Bundestag and Biomedicine . Simple answers to science policy questions are not easy to come by--not for the scientist, the doctor, or the ethicist. And these answers are not obvious to political decision makers either, whether they are administrative or legislative, national or international. That's what makes Ingo Härtel's position as a Referent in the Ministry of Health and Social Security so challenging.

Educating Successful Researchers . After her graduate experience, Eva Loh viewed improving the conditions for graduate students and postdoctorate fellows as a priority. As luck would have it, the Association of American Medical Colleges was hiring. She now works as executive secretary for the association's graduate research, education, and training (GREAT) group.

Communicating Science to Policy-Makers and Policy to Scientists . Monitoring legislation, educating members of Congress about the impact of proposed legislation on scientific research, and informing scientists about the potential impact of policies and legislation on their research funding and practice are all in a days work for Heather Rieff, a former postdoc who moved into the policy world.

Stepping Away From the Bench: Science Policy at the National Academies . Thinking she might regret the decision to go directly into science writing without truly understanding what it is to be a scientist, Laura Sheahan shortened a bartending stint in Spain to embark upon her graduate studies. In the process she found her true calling: science policy.

Luc Van Dyck , executive coordinator of the European Life Sciences Forum, outlines a week in his life to show that although science policy work can be frustrating, it's rarely routine.

Resources page . Links to and summaries of fellowship and internship opportunities, academic programs, and potential workplaces.