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Finding Your Way Into Policy Careers in Europe

In the United States, it’s not hard to find formal training in science policy; many institutions offer programs that directly open doors to science-policy careers. But in Europe, it’s a different story: Don't expect to find many open doors there. Instead, prepare to look for a partially open window, wedge it open, and climb in.

A wide range of organizations offer science policy-related jobs.

The lack of a formal career path may seem like a major barrier, but it is, at worst, an inconvenience, as the careers of Jonathan Wentworth, Marie-Ange Baucher, and Márta Vetier demonstrate.

Working his way up the civil service

(U.K. Parliament)
Jonathan Wentworth

As an energy and environment adviser at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), Jonathan Wentworth, 41, is one of six former researchers who advise the U.K. Parliament in Westminster, London, on science and technology issues. How did he end up in science policy? "Purely by chance," he says. "I applied for a job in the civil service purely to earn money whilst waiting for my Ph.D. viva and for the right postdoctoral position to come along."

Wentworth obtained a B.Sc. degree in botany from the University of Nottingham and followed it with a master's degree in plant ecology from the University of Leicester. He then earned a Ph.D. in plant ecological genetics at the University of East London in 2000. Facing a choice between "a lowly clerical job in what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food" and a 6-month academic research position, he chose the former. "I thought something better would crop up eventually," he says. "Instead, I got interested in science policy and couldn't justify moving back to academia."

After a couple of years working as an administrative officer, Wentworth joined the secretariat of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution--a government body charged with providing independent scientific advice for policymaking related to sustainable development. There, he handled routine administrative tasks, arranged meetings, gathered and synthesized information on environmental issues, contracted and managed consulting projects, and drafted reports on behalf of the commission.

Wentworth then went to POST on an 8-month assignment and in 2007 was offered his current position. His role today is to identify and analyze emerging science policy issues, offer scientific information and advice to parliamentarian select committees, stimulate debate, and anticipate how new science findings could impact policy. "A lot of my job now is analyzing ... information and communicating in a way that the various audiences can understand," Wentworth says.

Another important challenge in science policy is the need to tackle policy questions that cross and combine various fields of science, Wentworth says. A different sort of challenge, at least in the civil service, is the bureaucracy, he adds. Yet he enjoys interacting with people and takes "a certain amount of satisfaction" in the contribution he makes to science-policy debates.

A wide range of policy jobs

"Science policy is quite a broad umbrella," says parliamentary adviser Jonathan Wentworth. For early-career scientists, that means a wide variety of opportunities to choose from.

As a policy wonk, your role can include providing administrative support to scientific committees, gathering scientific facts to inform debates, analyzing science policy, recommending policy, or even helping with policy implementation. You may carry out a combination of these tasks or focus on one of them, depending on what organization you work for.

A wide range of organizations offer jobs related to science policy. Governments and intergovernmental bodies are the usual suspects, but any organization with an interest in influencing a science-policy debate--including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), patients' groups, trade associations, professional and learned societies, the industrial sector--also needs people with an understanding of science and policy.

Such organizations can be found at the local, national, and international levels. The bigger the organization, the more focused and bureaucratic your role may be. Within a smaller organization, you can often do more of the whole job. You are also more likely to have a stronger influence within the organization, but the organization itself will probably have less leverage on national or international policy.

Whether your work is for a government or, say, a trade association of local farmers makes an enormous difference in the way you approach science policy. When working for governments, your role is usually to independently analyze the issue at hand and explore alternatives for policymakers to choose among. Science policy quickly becomes advocacy if you work for a trade association or NGO, where your role is often to lobby for particular visions and values.

Science policy also offers a wide range of topics. "All the ethical part of science, all the biosecurity [and] biosafety issues, the need for developing infrastructures in an emerging field of science, all of that, it's policy," says Marie-Ange Baucher of OECD.

Testing the waters with an internship

(Courtesy, Marie-Ange Baucher)
Marie-Ange Baucher

Marie-Ange Baucher, 26, is a science-policy consultant in the Science and Technology Policy Division of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. As an intergovernmental organization, OECD monitors social and economic trends and helps governments compare policy experiences, find answers to common problems, and coordinate policies related to economic development. Like Wentworth, Baucher didn't seek a policy career. But when policy work offered an opportunity to continue working close to science without having to do experiments--something she says she was not suited for--she took it.

After earning a biochemistry B.Sc. degree from the University of François Rabelais – Tours in France, Baucher studied cellular biology and physiology in a 2-year master's degree program at the University of Bourgogne in Dijon. But during her first year, she realized that doing experiments was not for her. "I wanted to stay in the field without having to stay in a lab," she says.

Baucher switched to a new master's program in pharmaceutical development and therapeutic innovation at the University of Poitiers, finishing in 2005. She took an internship as a clinical-trials coordinator at GlaxoSmithKline in Paris. She found the work interesting but felt she needed more education. So she went on to obtain another master's degree, in economics, intellectual property, and innovation management, at the Paris-Sorbonne University. The course prompted her to apply for a 3-month internship at OECD. She has been working there ever since.

The role of the OECD Science and Technology Policy Division is to assist governments in developing policy related to science and technology. Baucher's main beats are synthetic biology, biomarkers, personalized medicine, and industrial biotechnology. Part of her job is to identify issues in these fields that require attention, including infrastructure development and ethical concerns. She then interacts with expert working groups and organizes international meetings to put together policy reports.

Baucher says the part of the job she most enjoys is gathering experts in diverse fields and making them talk with each other. "I can follow the evolution of science, travel, meet people, without having the part of research that I didn't like."

Finding a way in

Competition for science-policy jobs tends to be tough. One way to get a foot in the door (or a hand in the window) is to start with a low-level job. "I had no problem starting at [the] bottom, as that is the best way to understand the psychology and culture of any organization," parliamentary adviser Jonathan Wentworth says. "I got more of a chance to learn about how things work in the civil service and why things go wrong, particularly in terms of governance and policy, ... than if I had come in at a higher grade and had to assume management responsibilities in a somewhat alien culture to the average scientist."

Over the past 10 years, as they have become increasingly politically aware, many research councils and learning societies in countries like the United Kingdom (see resources) have launched science-policy fellowships that allow young researchers to gain policy experience, Wentworth says. Even if many of these fellowships are intended for researchers planning to return to academia, they offer a great way to test the waters.

"Do not be scared to do internships and volunteering jobs to understand how these processes work and get a first experience," says Márta Vetier of Greenpeace. Such experiences will also help you assess science policy as a career option. "Some [people] think it's [more] glamorous and exciting than it actually is. A lot of it is research and not rushing around different politicians," Wentworth says.

Small steps in the right direction

(Greenpeace/Philippe Reynaers)
Márta Vetier

Márta Vetier did not stumble into a policy career. She wanted to protect nature and sought the most effective way of doing so. She considered studying biology but decided instead on landscape architecture and planning, believing that that would be the best way to have an impact. But while she was pursuing those studies, she says she realized that "what would be the most exciting for me is to ... take the whole issue even one step up from planning and move to the strategic level." This led her into environmental policy, and today Vetier, 29, works as an E.U. policy officer on sustainable agriculture at the Greenpeace European Unit in Brussels.

Vetier obtained her 5-year diploma (equivalent to a joint B.Sc. and master's degree) in landscape architecture and planning from Corvinus University of Budapest in 2004. After working with the Land Stewardship Advisory Service of BirdLife Hungary for almost a year, Vetier decided to gain some policy training. She studied environmental science, policy, and management in a 2-year master’s degree program funded by the European Commission and run jointly by the University of Manchester in the U.K., Lund University in Sweden, the Central European University in Budapest, and the University of the Aegean in Lesvos, Greece. "It was a really fruitful and mind-opening environment," she says.

After graduating in 2007, Vetier became an environmental impact assessment coordinator at a large engineering consultancy company in the United Kingdom, but after a few months she started to find it unsatisfying. "What disturbed me most was the business-interest perspective," she says. "I felt that there were just too many tradeoffs in the field."

Vetier joined Greenpeace in 2008. There, she monitors the activities of European institutions, prepares briefings and policy papers, and represents the organization at conferences, at meetings with policymakers, and in debates with other stakeholders.

Vetier compares her job to a dancing exercise. "There's a certain beat that is given by the political agenda," Vetier says, and it is that beat that the decision-makers, the scientists, the industry, the public interest groups, all try to follow. But "all of these actors ... want to take the dance in a certain direction. Then it's about anticipating how the other people will move and how you should move in order to make your voice heard a bit more than the others," she says.

"In these 2 years that I've been here, I can actually see the effects of my work," she adds. "Just by ... having a well-prepared meeting with someone, you can actually change the process ... and what's being decided. ... Maybe it's only a small step, but at least it's a small step in the right direction."

Gaining the skills

One can't improvise being a policy wonk; the job requires a mix of skills unusual among traditionally trained scientists.

A scientific background is important, Baucher says, because it will help you understand scientific and technical issues. A Ph.D. is often appreciated, but, Wentworth says, the utility of advanced training is limited, because you "can't expect to work within your specialization. Often, you will end up with lots of different pieces of the puzzle and [have to] put them together."

It’s essential to understand the interface between science and policy. Start by paying attention to your lab's funding needs, what new infrastructure is needed to advance your field, and the ethical issues associated with your research, Baucher advises. Policy work may also require some solid grounding in economics, politics, or law. Don't plan on staying in your comfort zone, Wentworth says.

Another important aspect of the job is keeping up with all new policy-related developments, Wentworth says. The past is also important, Vetier adds: Learn the history of science-policy issues in as much detail as possible.

Most important, probably, is "being able to translate a complex issue into an understandable communication without losing the content and without losing the credibility," Vetier says. "A lot of it is to be able to communicate complex issues succinctly" to different target audiences, Wentworth adds.

It's not just finding the right words; it's also people skills, as you will interact with people from a broad range of backgrounds, sectors, nationalities, and cultures. You need to be able to listen to and understand different points of view, Wentworth says. In an NGO policy job, "you need debating and arguing and communication skills" as well, says Vetier.

Resources: Some job pointers

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) in Paris offers (unpaid) traineeships to students in areas such as economics, environment, and statistics.

The European Commission's Traineeships Office Home Page and European Personnel Selection Office are the places to start for those wanting a job at the EC.

The EurActiv JobSite runs ads of current job openings and internships in E.U. affairs, with a section dedicated to policy work and lobbying in all kinds of organizations, including political parties, NGOs, and industry.

The U.K. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) offers a range of fellowships for Ph.D. students in collaboration with scientific societies and funding bodies.

The British Ecological Society (BES) welcomes policy interns, offers science-policy training workshops, and runs a ministerial shadowing scheme.

The Royal Society runs an exchange program between U.K. Parliament members and researchers called the MP-Scientist Pairing Scheme that features shadowing opportunities and reciprocal visits to the constituency office and laboratory.

In France, a similar initiative is run by the Académie des Sciences and the Office Parlementaire d’Evaluation des Choix Scientifiques et Technologiques (OPECST): the Jumelages Parlementaires-Membres de l’Académie-Chercheurs.

To check out what's going on in your country, look at what training opportunities your respective funding body, learned society, or professional body may be able to offer you. You should also get in touch with individual policy organizations. A starting point is the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA), which lists the different country organizations in charge of advising European governments on science policy issues.

Photo (top): Anthony Kelly

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.