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Stepping Away From the Bench: Science Policy at the National Academies


It seemed like an easy choice senior year in college--go to graduate school or be a bartender in Spain the year after graduation. I never saw myself as a scientist, but rather a potential science writer (I minored in journalism), so the bartender option was very attractive. However, everyone has one favorite influential teacher or professor; mine was my immunology professor who told me I must apply to graduate school. And although I couldn't imagine myself as a successful bench scientist, I thought that I might regret the decision to go directly into science writing without truly understanding what it is to be a scientist. It is great to be an observer of something that interests you, but it's even more exciting to be a part of the process.

I got into graduate school and compromised on the Spain plan by only going for the summer. I was so unsure about the decision to go to graduate school, I waited for over 2 years before changing my license plates! After passing the comprehensive exams, I decided I liked the program enough to stay and decided this was it. But what was it? Basically, I never had dreamed of being a scientist--an inventor maybe, like Thomas Edison, but not a scientist. They wore white lab coats, played with test tubes overflowing with green gases, and never spoke to anyone. Of course my naïve or perhaps stereotypical impressions were wrong. I really enjoyed academia, at least until my final year of grad school, and most people can attest to the "joys" of trying to finish up experiments and thesis writing.

An epiphany occurred during my third year of graduate school, while attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publisher of Next Wave). I discovered the existence of the Congressional Science Policy Fellowship Program. THAT was it! What I wanted to do with my life was science policy! Now what the heck IS science policy, I wondered, although even before I knew the answer I knew that it sounded like me. My whole mission for the next 3.5 years of graduate school was to learn how to get a AAAS fellowship or otherwise become involved in policy as a career. I diligently read every article I could from past recipients (like those featured on Next Wave), attended lectures about alternative careers in science, contacted recent grads in the policy world, etc. I did not choose policy as a career interest because I was frustrated with science or upset at the dismal future of being a professional postdoc (this was the mid-1990s). I choose science policy because it combined writing--and public communication of science--with something tangible that has a more direct impact on society.

I applied for several different policy fellowships and finally, a few months after graduation, I received the congressional fellowship through the American Society for Microbiology. I was just as excited as the day I passed my thesis defense. I had several backup plans, though none involved doing a postdoc since I knew my passion was in science policy. The decision to forgo a postdoc was not difficult, since I had geared myself up for over 3 years to pursue science policy. I knew, however, that I would miss academia, the intellectual environment, and being involved in the small circle of scientists who researched DNA replication of human papillomavirus. I wanted to remain actively involved in academia in some capacity.

The congressional fellowship was an absolutely wonderful and invaluable experience, but I will not go into the details since several past articles from the Next Wave have been dedicated to doting descriptions of the congressional and other policy fellowship programs. After finishing the year on Capitol Hill, I began working at the National Academy of Sciences as a program officer on the Board on International Scientific Organizations within the Policy and Global Affairs Division. I have now been here for almost 2 years and absolutely love my job.

As a program officer, I manage seven bioscience committees called "U.S. National Committees" (USNCs), which represent the United States in various international "unions" that comprise the International Council for Science. The USNCs include:

  • International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

  • International Union of Biological Sciences

  • International Union of Pure and Applied Biophysics

  • International Union of Microbiological Societies

  • International Union of Physiological Sciences

  • International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry

  • DIVERSITAS--an international program of biodiversity science.

The USNCs are composed of scientists drawn from academia, government, and industry who work in cooperation with U.S. scientific societies to maintain and strengthen international relationships in the sciences. The mission of the USNCs is to advance global access to scientific knowledge and research resources, and to foster collegiate networks and communication in various disciplines of science worldwide, especially in developing countries. We sponsor travel grant programs for young scientists and scientists from underrepresented backgrounds to participate in international meetings and minicourses. We act as a conduit for the international scientific community to inform the U.S. community on issues of policy and scientific importance across the bioscience disciplines, ranging from biodiversity and sustainable development to gene patenting and bioterrorism. We create programs for building workforce and research capacity in developing countries. We sponsor workshops, symposia, and short courses on current topics in the biosciences. And we provide a forum for dialogue between U.S. scientists and foreign colleagues. My job also allows me to maintain my own professional activities such as attending conferences, writing and reviewing papers, and keeping up on the literature--what I would otherwise miss most from academia.

There are many ways to get into policy besides the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. The Presidential Management Internship is a 2-year paid internship program for master's level and doctoral graduates in any field, science or nonscience; PMI interns are placed in a federal agency of their choice. The National Academies also has a paid internship program which is a great way to become involved in the policy world, especially from the perspective of how science influences policy in government. People interested in science policy as a career can also look to the professional societies for jobs. Many of the larger societies have a public policy or legislative division which monitors and lobbies Capitol Hill on various issues that affect the scientific community at-large.

Although I was fortunate to get the congressional fellowship, I would still have pursued a policy career using one of many other avenues mentioned. I think people worry about their lack of policy experience, coming out of graduate school uncertain of the proper names for the three branches of the U.S. government. But your expertise in science and your ability to understand scientific issues is what is valued in science policy.

Becoming involved in activities outside of graduate school can also be helpful if you are considering a career outside of research. During my last 2 years of school I volunteered at the Carnegie Science Museum in Pittsburgh to help a team of academics and local government officials devise a plan to reform math and science education in southwestern Pennsylvania. It was a fun and rewarding endeavor with potential to significantly impact the future of science education in the region. This experience still inspires me: My long-range career goal is to become involved in science education reform at the K-12 level. I think it is vital to have people with a background in science, even Ph.D.s, teach at the elementary and secondary school levels to influence today's children to become the next generation of scientists--whether they sit at a lab bench, on the Hill, or in the classroom.