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From Bench to BMBF


Editor's note: 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.

It was one of those days: Edelgard Bulmahn, the German Minister of Education and Research, and myself, her then Personal Advisor, were scheduled to leave for a week in the United States. Our itinerary was packed with meetings with an impressive number of important people, as well as visits to prestigious scientific institutions. All the ministry's experts had contributed stacks of background material for these meetings. It added up to a suitcase full of paper. I had 3 hours left to condense the stuff so that the minister could read the really crucial documents on the plane.

This is when you learn to scan rather than read, and to ignore phone calls and e-mails--except, of course, the ones that might provide the missing last minute bits and pieces. It took me some time to get a feeling as to those pieces of information that the minister really needed to see (she is usually quite "up" on the issues) as opposed to those that would only steal her time. So, at first, I'd carry the supposedly superfluous material in my luggage, just in case. ... But after a while, I trusted my judgement and left behind more and more stuff.

The office of the minister comprises about 15 people, and only two or three of them are academics. This is a bottleneck. Every single potential mistake or slip-up that someone internally might have made that was not picked up in the hierarchical ladder on the way to the minister had to be spotted by those two or three souls (or else, when we slipped up, by the minister herself).

The German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has about 1000 employees and oversees programs for all areas of research, spanning basic science to technology transfer. The BMBF is the biggest single source of R&D funding in Germany. In addition, it funds the federal share of the budgets of the major German research organisations that conduct over half of the German research not done at universities. The BMBF is also responsible for the framework legislation of German universities, for vocational training, and for lifelong learning. This year's budget is in the range of ?8.7 billion.

How do you become the personal advisor of a science minister? There is no single answer to that! One cannot plan it; one can only seize the opportunity if it presents itself.

In my case, I was finishing my PhD in biotechnology and felt unsure of whether I wanted to continue my career in research. There seemed to be so much else to science than the narrow field of my research. So I looked for postdoctoral positions as well as for positions in smaller biotech companies. I also applied to the BMBF, because during my time at university, I had become interested in science policy. From time to time, the BMBF issues calls for applications from people with a specific profile or set of skills--those applicants are selected at an assessment center. But you can also send a "blind" application in between formal recruitment efforts and see what happens. I was lucky--I turned out to have the right profile at the right time, so the BMBF became my employer.

Initially I worked in a division that funded regional innovation initiatives, with a special focus on the former eastern Germany. However, a few months into my job the offer from the minister came and--most certainly--I could not resist.

The minister was looking for someone with experience in the life sciences to complete a team that was made up of people with backgrounds in science administration, humanities, party politics, and public relations. It was my PhD in biotechnology that first caught her eye. However, I found out later that my experience in environmental and science politics in my hometown, Hamburg, contributed that "extra something" that got me the job.

In Hamburg, I had served on a committee of voluntary citizens--appointed by the local parliament--that controls and advises Hamburg's environmental ministry. In addition, I founded a "Science Forum" that was designed to foster communication about science and science policy among politicians and interested citizens. You see, such voluntary activities are noticed by prospective employers!

So I cannot give you the perfect recipe for becoming a personal advisor to a key figure in science policy. However, what I can try to do is focus on what, in my opinion, are useful qualifications--in addition, of course, to solid scientific credentials.

Firstly, you have to be genuinely interested in politics, and I mean politics in general, not only science policy. You have to be able to see where science policy realistically stands in relation to the other fields of politics. Only then can you truly understand what the priorities of a government at any given time might be. By extension you can avoid wasting too much of your energy pushing a certain science issue when at that point everybody else is obviously much more concerned about, let's say, the reform of the social security system.

Secondly, you should be aware that surviving in politics requires soft skills and network building. Neither is taught at school or university. But you can teach yourself many of these skills relevant to politics, for example by getting involved in a student parliament or working for some nongovernmental organisation. You might want to join a political party and work there voluntarily. There is always an opportunity to get nominated for committees or for a local parliament, and the experience will be invaluable.

What will you learn there that you won't be taught at university? You can learn about heading committees and getting the results you want. About getting a feeling for people and how they will behave in critical situations. And about knowing who you can rely on in terms of delivering the goods. It's about going into a meeting prepared(!)--i.e., with a draft document as a way to structure the discussion. And about getting to know the system in terms of structures AND players, and understanding how to work it. The "official" way and the most efficient way to get something done may not be the same. ...

Bear in mind, if working in Brussels appeals, that speaking two or more foreign languages is becoming more and more important to qualify for jobs in the European Commission.

And always remember the importance of networking, networking, and more networking. You never know which contact might pay off one day. For example, if as a graduate student your professor asks you to do some extra work, such as preparing a workshop or putting together a research proposal, then don't regard it as a burden. Instead, see it as a way of developing your organisational skills that you can later sell in your CV, as well as to acquire a number of contacts you might not otherwise have made!

Working for a member of cabinet teaches you how the government works--in good times and in bad. Like a marriage, one has ups and downs due to internal and external stress. One has to learn to work not only under time pressure, but also with the type of stress generated when the stakes are particularly high. Imagine having 5 minutes to answer the minister's question, "how many jobs are there in nanotechnology in Germany?" with the Internet down and the person who would know the answer out for lunch--not to mention while considering sticky follow-on questions, like "based on what definition of nanotech?" There is no time for perfection. You had better think of some answer that fits with the context in which the question was asked. This is important to remember: Politics is very much about context, whereas science is mostly about content.

To avoid these kinds of situations, it is a good idea to gather all the materials you may possibly need beforehand. You do this for every meeting the minister has--and she has a lot every day. Which brings us to another key issue: the minister's schedule. It is very tight. The minister can only accept a small fraction of the invitations she gets. Sorting this out is a highly political act. Here lies your power; but learning to use that power effectively is something you one only learn on the job. In addition to all the political and formal questions it depends, of course, on the person you work for.

Because members of a cabinet are political appointees, if they go--be it because of lost elections or because the head of the government decides to make changes in his or her cabinet--you will go as well. The personal assistant position, as name implies, is dependent on the personal understanding and trust between two people. At the least you ought to be able to find another job within the ministry. So make sure you have a reasonable contract to have this option--or prepare in advance for other fallback options.

Having mastered all this, ideally you will have acquired a good overview of the ministry's policies, its budget, its directorates, and its staff. You will have developed an understanding of all major topics, from high-energy physics to socioecological research. And you will be good enough to judge which issues are critical. You will have learned how research priorities are set. You will have gathered some expertise in rewriting speeches in 1 hour, knowing what a good press release looks like, and how to explain complex issues in simple terms.

But you will never have had time to really read the documents you are personally interested in. You will have had to learn to scan rather than read. The phone rings ceaselessly with people reminding you of a letter that should have been out weeks ago or of a call you promised to give them days ago. They might think you have become arrogant, but it was simply that the most urgent things interfered with the most important, or vice versa.

The good news is if you survive all this without making major enemies, any subsequent job will be easier. You now have a sense for setting priorities.

Congratulations, though, if you have managed to keep up a private life! The long and irregular working hours will inevitably put a strain on any partnership or friendship. This is why you will seldom find someone doing the job for much more than 2 years. But the skills you acquire qualify you for other jobs, where your role is more visible and less like "the oil that smoothes the machine."

Case in point: After 2 years in the minister's office, I had the opportunity to come to the U.S. National Science Foundation for 5 months to educate myself on the ways that the US administers its scientific research. After returning to Germany, I will take up a position in the Directorate for Health, Life Sciences and Sustainability at the BMBF, in which I will be responsible for the federal programs in the areas of systems biology and proteomics. I look forward to applying the skills that I acquired in my recent job back where my scientific background lies and in two fields that will play an important role in the post-genomics area. I will have a say in where the federal money goes, thus influencing the future of these fields of research. I will have to find the time to read scientific documents again, since I will need to know where the cutting edge of the field is located. I will meet scientists and learn about their fascinating experiments--without the frustration of working in the lab myself.

That frustration is what made me quit research in the first place: I simply don't have the patience to try an experiment over and over again until it works. I was always interested in many things other than the object of my PhD (which involved, by the way, studying a thermostable DNA polymerase from the archaeon Thermococcus aggregans).

I am confident that it is possible to find a balance between staying close enough to science to enjoy the inspiring work of talented researchers while personally fighting for the best research conditions possible for these people. This is how I hope to apply the different skills I have learned in my career so far.

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