Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

An Exploration in Science Policy Opportunities

leave a comment »

By: Adele Blackler

This past year, in my never ending quest to figure out What I Want To Do When I Grow Up, I undertook two different science policy experiences. The first, a part-time detail in a science policy office at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I really enjoyed. The detail led me to my second experience, a 3-month science policy fellowship with a research advocacy firm, which I really did NOT enjoy. While there were many differences between the two experiences, I think what made the biggest difference for me was the people I worked with.

At the NIH detail, at least half of the office was comprised of people who, like me, had obtained Ph.Ds in the life-sciences, completed some post-doctoral work, and then decided to switch to policy. Not only did they really understand my background and interests in policy, but they also knew how research and lab skills translated into policy skills. I worked closely with several people in the office who helped me learn the domain and navigate institute politics, but I was also given a lot of independence and was treated very much like one of their peers.

At the research advocacy firm, I wound up working with hard-core policy wonks with no experience working with scientists. As such, my 8+ years of research and scientific training were deemed irrelevant the moment I walked into the office, and I was treated as though I had no useful skills. When I proposed a project describing the history of recently developed pharmaceuticals, I was told that that project was very research intensive, and would probably be too hard for me!

For most of the science advocacy fellowship, I was undertasked and micromanaged. When I did have work to do, I was taking research-related press releases and reducing them into health related sound bites for the science-illiterate elected official. Basically, every piece of scientific research became “studying disease X, to build better treatments,” no matter what the actual science was about. It was truly an eye-opening experience into how little technical scientific accuracy can matter to some of the groups trying to influence science policy.

So, what do I know now that I wish I had known before taking the fellowship? Well, unfortunately there is no fool-proof way to avoid bad fellowship experiences-but here are several criteria that I think are important:
1. Make sure at least one person you will be working with has a Ph.D. I had talked to scientists that had done the same advocacy fellowship as me, and they really had good things to say. But they had worked at the firm when the vice-president of science policy had a science-oriented Ph.D.; by the time I started my fellowship this person had moved on and I was the only one with a Ph.D. (or science background) in the office.
2. Try to determine what you will be allowed to do. During the interview process, in addition to ascertaining what work you will be doing, also try to figure out if there are limits on what you are allowed to do. Part of my interest in the science advocacy fellowship was thinking I would be able to go out and actually work with different student or post-doctoral groups to get them involved in advocacy. When I started, I quickly learned that fellows are not allowed to talk to outside groups without supervision. If I had discovered that during the interview I probably would not have taken the fellowship.
3. Take notice of how well your skills are assessed during the interview. When I interviewed for my NIH detail, I had two long interviews where I was asked very focused questions about my writing and communication skills; in my fellowship interview, I was the one asking most of the questions. In retrospect, I should have taken this as a warning that the fellowship was not one that required a great deal of specific skill.

In trying to make the leap from bench research to science policy, it can be very valuable to do some short details or fellowships in the field. This gives you experience and a feel for what the job entails. But it pays to be picky about what jobs to take; make sure that your skill set and interests match up well with the position.

As for my science policy career, at the moment it is on hold-I am back at the bench and really enjoying my research. But I’m glad I have had the opportunity to explore a different career path and really get a feel for it. If I do decide to go into science policy someday, I have a very clear vision of what I want, and I am now one step closer in deciding What I Want to do When I Grow Up.


Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 26, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Posted in Essays

Tagged with ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: