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Weaving In and Out of Science: Biomedical Research and Health Policy


Are the biomedical sciences and the social sciences completely separate worlds? For a long time, I thought that they were. I was one of those students who continually had a hard time deciding what to study during my undergraduate years. I started out in biology at the University of Alberta, considered switching to the Faculty of Arts, and finally decided to specialize in genetics with a minor in political science--but only after taking a semester to study sociology in England.

I'm not entirely sure what compelled me to undertake such a broad range of studies, other than the simple fact that I enjoy learning about a lot of different things. On the one hand, the prospect of choosing between one of the "either-or" scenarios that many suggested was troubling me. I read books and articles on issues of science that encouraged me to think of science as a social institution. Rather than being a monolith of data and calculation, I began to see science as an eclectic amalgamation of human interaction. I could define my own niche.

On the other hand, I often worried that I was spreading myself too thin--keeping my interests in genetics, immunology, and political science by taking senior-level courses in each at the same time as volunteering and doing other extracurricular activities got quite stressful at times. Both family and professors told me that I lacked focus and needed to specialize.

Ironically and indirectly, this breadth allowed me to become more comfortable with science--and to partake of it more intensely. Courses on international health introduced me to policy debates surrounding vaccination strategies as I learned about the genetic characteristics of the HIV virus. Books on the social implications of science also touched on the tools of molecular biology that I was using in class.

Buoyed by this interdependency, I worked for a year in a laboratory in the Department of Medical Genetics, hunting for imprinted genes on human chromosome 14. Contrary to the daunting view about lab research that I had held a couple of years earlier, this was a wonderful experience. Yet, I wanted to continue my work in both worlds and to begin learning more about the social context and systems on which health research has an impact. I decided to do a master's degree in international health policy at the London School of Economics, a program that incorporated health economics, pharmaceutical policy, and more traditional health-policy studies.

In London, I attempted to pull together the two strands of my academic interests: my dissertation, combined with an internship at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, focused on economic and regulatory issues in pharmacogenomics. Nuffield publishes concise but well-researched reports and recommendations on upcoming issues in bioethics. The staff members exemplify the interdependency between science and policy: Some have training in science; others are philosophers and social scientists; and all want to work on bioethics-related issues.

I returned to Canada in October 2002 and am currently Research Officer to the President at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research ( CIHR, a sponsor of Next Wave Canada). In this position, I conduct research on new initiatives that the president is investigating, assess funding announcements from all over the world, provide research and advice on upcoming issues on which the President is asked to comment, and help prepare manuscripts. My role requires a background in a broad set of areas--a combination of health research, social sciences, and ethics.

I am also fortunate that my work allows me to remain engaged in science issues; I recently attended a fascinating conference on ethical, legal, and social issues in genomics. Just as my experience in the lab has enabled me to better understand the issues that a health-research funding agency is faced with, I find that keeping up with some of the literature helps me maintain an important link to the science that CIHR funds.

There seem to be a wide and growing range of prospects for science graduates who want to do policy-related work. Small biotechnology enterprises, larger pharmaceutical companies, and industry organizations such as BIOTECanada or Rx&D could be potential employers. In government, science literacy is important in a number of departments, including CIHR, Health Canada, and Industry Canada (the Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat, for example). Although there is no template by any means, many CIHR employees have a science background, and a number of them have doctorates in health-related fields.

The health-research agenda has also changed to be more broadly inclusive. Since its inception in 2000, CIHR has incorporated health services, health policy, population, and public health research into its mandate, alongside funding for more traditional biomedical and clinical health research. There are similar agencies at the provincial level, including the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research in British Columbia, both of which might have an interest in hiring individuals wanting to become involved in science policy. Genome Canada, a relatively new federal agency, is also involved in science-policy-related work.

With the expansion of the health-research agenda, academic opportunities for individuals interested in science policy have also opened up. Among other examples, the translation of results from health services and policy research into policy affords ongoing challenges, and health law and ethical considerations are burgeoning areas of policy-oriented research.

This newfound focus on people with an interest in science policy is not restricted to Canada. In the United Kingdom, the government (through the research councils) and independent funding bodies (such as the Wellcome Trust) are beginning to study and implement the results of research on public engagement, which has a direct relevance to science policy. Among my peers in the international health policy master's program in London, many found work in government and think tanks. A number of them found jobs in industry--the ability to analyze the results of science and channel them into policy represents skills that are in particularly high demand in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors.

What I find especially appealing about science policy jobs is that like many interdisciplinary careers, there is no one particular "track" set out for them. Because the outcomes of science are so multifaceted--requiring actual research along with considerations of dissemination and knowledge translation, ethical issues, program delivery, and statistical analysis (to take four examples at CIHR)--science policy will necessarily bring together individuals who come from a variety of backgrounds. This opens a lot of doors for young people who come from one particular environment or another, while allowing us to learn from our interaction with others and their own range of diverse experiences.

Gazing into the crystal ball, I see myself continually engaged in science policy, whether I remain in government in the long term or whether I return to university for a doctorate. My interests in science naturally overlap with public-policy questions, from economic and regulatory issues arising from pharmacogenomics to proposed genetic antidiscrimination legislation. A career in science policy has allowed me to see that rather than being mutually exclusive, the health sciences and social sciences have many synergies that make them an exciting and emerging area of work.