Description: Science policy has been described operationally as “the perfect marriage between communications, science, and serving society.” It is a largely advisory profession, which is to say that most individuals in the profession are policy advisors. Specifically, they communicate to leaders within often powerful interest groups the information required by to make informed decisions. Such interest groups include government (US, state, and sometimes local), industry, scientific societies, universities, and nonprofits. Communication often takes the form of briefs, in which usually complicated sets of ideas and data must be reduced without oversimplification to their essential elements. But communication can take many other forms as well, including lengthy policy treatises, talks, and testimony. In this regard, advisors must be able to tailor their message to diverse audiences, including those holding sometimes conflicting views. Scientific advisors are commonly responsible as well for organizing meetings among many different groups in order to procure or share information. One item that comes across in any discussion of a scientific advisor’s skill-set, especially in governmental agencies, is the ability to handle an extraordinary breadth of information that one must understand.
Approximately 25% of scientific advisors are employed by the US government. Some work within the executive branch, within the Office of Science and Technology Policy primarily, but also the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Science and Technology Council, to provide advice directly to the President. Others work within agencies represented in the executive branch at the level of the cabinet. Of primary interest to those with MD or biomedical PhD degrees is the Department of Health and Human Services, a component of which is the Public Health Service, which comprises the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health, all of which employ scientific advisors.
Advantages of an advanced degree: An advanced degree (PhD or MD) is the much preferred route for any position in policy relating to the biomedical sciences – the commonly held view is that no one can really understand the way science works but for those raised within the sciences. A postdoctoral experience can prove advantageous in this regard but is not necessary.
Key competencies: Careers in science policy are based on communication – a great deal of the job is reading, writing, and speaking with diverse constituencies.
On-campus student organizations: Penn Science Policy and Diplomacy Group
First steps: The almost universal recommendation is to get involved at the earliest point of interest. One recent visitor to Penn recommended reading The Hill, RollCall, Politico, ScienceInsider, and PolicyBlotter, in short paying attention to the relevant news. Attending policy discussions at Penn, the greater Philadelphia area, and at national scientific meetings is useful. Many in the profession recommend writing editorials, blogs, letters to one’s congressman, state legislators, and city officials, and position papers. The Penn Science Policy and Diplomacy Group offers a useful conduit for some of these activities, and ASBMB offers an ‘advocacy’ toolkit that can quite helpful as well. The annual AAAS Policy Forum, held in spring, is open to anyone. ASBMB’s Student/Postdoc Hill Day, open through application, is widely held to be excellent. Contacting those already in the profession, of course, is important. As one writer put it, “Finding out what policy is and how it works from those who have been involved in it for years was the most important thing I did in my entire job search” (ASBMBToday May, 2014). Volunteering for university or professional society committees can make sense as well, as these bodies work as deliberative teams. A larger commitment begins with fellowships in science policy. The most widely cited of these are the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship and the National Academies Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship.
Additional resources: None.