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A Career in Science Policy: Communicating Science to Policy-Makers and Policy to Scientists
by Heather Rieff, Ph.D.
Many scientists today are choosing to pursue careers outside of academia. I'd like to offer my thoughts on the changing nature of scientific careers and tell you about my experience working in science policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). Although I have only been at FASEB for about two months, I have been thinking about non-academic careers for a number of years, both as a graduate student in Neurobiology at Harvard, and as a post-doc at the University of Virginia. My remarks today are a combination of my own personal experiences and those of other scientists I know who have left academic science.
I think there are a number of reasons why people leave academia. For me, the most important reason was a desire to apply my scientific training to new challenges and to communicate science to people with a wide range of backgrounds. Scientists may also leave academia for financial reasons, lifestyle reasons, or due to the geographical limitations of academic jobs. A few years ago, I think there was also the perception that academic faculty positions were few and far between, although this may be changing. Finally, I think many scientists realize the wide range of career options and opportunities for networking that can open up to them once outside academia, and I have already seen this in the year that I've been at FASEB. I think it will be interesting to see if these reasons become less important in the next couple years. For example, the proposed increase in post-doc salaries may make academic science more financially attractive.
At this point, I'd like to mention a small data set, which includes myself. Of the Ph.D. students who entered the Harvard Program in Neuroscience between 1992 and 1995 and have since completed their degrees, approximately 50% have left academic science and are working in one of the careers I mention below. Although this is only a small data set, the pattern is markedly different from the expectations that prevailed a few years ago.
In attending many career workshops at Harvard, and in exploring my career options, a number of professional opportunities were routinely presented as opportunities for someone with my background in the Biological Sciences. These were often referred to as "alternative" careers, a term I dislike, since I feel it implies these careers are somehow less legitimate. Many scientists choose to work in industry either in research positions or in "liaison" positions, working with both the scientific and business sides of a biotech or pharmaceutical company. Other career options are available in science writing or publishing. Patent law firms and management consulting companies actively recruit from science Ph.D. programs at Harvard and at other schools. Teaching, either at the high school or college level, is another career path some scientists choose.
A career in science policy was an option that was not as regularly presented as the professions I mentioned above, but was something that had always interested me. As a post-doc, I organized a conference on stem cells, which addressed many policy issues, and sparked my interest in pursuing a career in science policy. There are many places to be involved in science policy including scientific or disciplinary societies, like FASEB; the government; voluntary health agencies or other interest groups; and non-government organizations, like the Brookings Institute or AAAS. In addition, there are policy jobs in industry and in academia.
As a science policy analyst, I have two main roles: communicating science to policy makers, but just as importantly, communicating policy to scientists. I analyze, respond to, and help draft policies that impact scientific research, such as FASEB's policy statement on post-doctoral training. I monitor legislation, such as the recent bills to ban human cloning and educate members of Congress about the impact of proposed legislation on scientific research. At the same time, I inform scientists about the implications of this legislation for their research. As a scientist, I provide scientific expertise on issues, such as stem cell biology, and educate the public and media about the benefits and importance of scientific research. I facilitate interactions between scientists and policy-makers at conferences like FASEB's conference on "Government-Academic-Industrial Partnerships: Bioethics and Genome Research." In addition, FASEB has a long history of advocating for increased federal funding for biomedical and related research, and I will also become involved in this policy activity.
I think one of the biggest challenges for those of us in science policy is trying to involve scientists in science policy activities. While some scientists, including many within the FASEB community, devote much of their time to policy activities, scientists are often uninformed about policies unless they directly affect them. They may become interested in policy issues only when it is too late to advocate for change. One way to encourage participation is to expand and publicize policy events at scientific meetings. I think graduate students and post-docs would be particularly interested in participating in policy activities of societies, because it is a way for them to see the impact of their work globally.
How did my training prepare me for a career in science policy? I think it is a common misperception that Ph.D. programs only prepare scientists to do research. In fact, the skills you acquire in the course of a Ph.D. are applicable to a wide range of professions. As a scientist representing the scientific community, my ability to analyze and interpret scientific information is invaluable. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of Neuroscience, I have a broad range of scientific knowledge and an interest in a wide range of scientific fields, which is another important component of a career in science policy. The range of scientific topics you are involved in can vary widely depending on where you work. I also have direct experience and a scientist's perspective on many areas with policy agendas including peer review, post-doc training, stem cell research, and animals in research. As a graduate student and post-doc, I was trained to write clearly and had the opportunity to talk about science to a wide range of scientific and non-scientific audiences. I use both of these skills daily as a policy analyst. Finally, I learned a tremendous amount from completing the long term, largely independent project of a Ph.D. thesis: analyzing data, making decisions, and planning with a long-range goal in mind.
I think many academic scientists find it frustrating when they make the decision to leave academia. It is often difficult to get experience outside of academia and many students are discouraged from pursuing other opportunities during graduate school. As a result it is challenging for many scientists to market themselves to potential employers. In addition, scientists usually leave academia with the feeling that they are closing a door behind them and that re-entering academia will be very difficult. Many face the added challenge of having mentors, peers, or administrators who are unsupportive of their decision to leave academia or resentful of their professional opportunities.
I believe that one of the challenges we face as members of the science policy community is communicating the changing nature of scientific careers to scientists. One way to do this is to liaison with career services offices at universities. An increasing number of universities are tailoring their services to help Ph.D. students explore careers outside of academia. There are opportunities to recruit, give career advice, and talk at career workshops through these offices. In addition, I think it is important to encourage scientists at all stages of their careers to be involved in opportunities outside of academia. At a recent FASEB Conference, Barbara McGarey, a lawyer for the Foundation for the NIH related how useful it was for her to be involved in the initial scientific discussions regarding one of their recent initiatives. I'd like to turn that around and say that it is just as valuable for scientists to be involved in legal discussions. Scientists who have experience in, and an understanding of law, policy, business, or teaching will only enrich the academic research community of which they are a part.
Heather Rieff, Ph.D.
Senior Science Policy Analyst
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology
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